The Ann Arbor Chronicle » Natural Area Preservation it's like being there Wed, 26 Nov 2014 18:59:03 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Traverwood Apts: Initial Zoning OK, Land Donation Tue, 03 Dec 2013 04:53:59 +0000 Chronicle Staff A First Martin Corp. project, which would construct a complex of 16 two-story buildings on the west side of Traverwood Drive, north of Plymouth Road, has received initial approval for a required rezoning. The development is called Traverwood Apartments. A donation of 2.2 acres, just north of the project site, by Bill Martin to the city, has also been accepted.

Action came at the city council’s Dec. 2, 2013 meeting. The donated acreage is next to the Stapp Nature Area and the Leslie Park golf course.

Traverwood Apartments, Ann Arbor planning commission, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Aerial view of proposed Traverwood Apartments at 2225 Traverwood Drive, north of Plymouth Road.

The final vote on the zoning and a vote on the site plan will appear on a future council agenda.

The project, estimated to cost $30 million, would include 16 two-story buildings for a total of 216 one- and two-bedroom units – or 280 total bedrooms. Eight of the buildings would each have 15 units and 11 single-car garages. An additional eight buildings would each have 12 units and 8 single-car garages.

The city’s planning commission recommended approval of the site plan and the required rezoning at its Nov. 6, 2013 meeting. The site is made up of two parcels: a nearly 16-acre lot that’s zoned R4D (multi-family residential), and an adjacent 3.88-acre lot to the south that’s currently zoned ORL (office, research and light industrial). It’s the smaller lot that needs to be rezoned R4D.

Land to be donated by Bill Martin to the city of Ann Arbor indicated in red outline.

Land to be donated by Bill Martin to the city of Ann Arbor indicated in red outline.

This brief was filed from the city council’s chambers on the second floor of city hall, located at 301 E. Huron. A more detailed report will follow.

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Bird Hills Fri, 03 May 2013 23:15:54 +0000 John Floyd Natural Areas Preservation Volunteer Steve Powell helped burn off woody shrubs yesterday in Bird Hills Park. [photo] Also Robb Johnston: [photo]

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Rezoning Approved for Bluffs Expansion Wed, 06 Jun 2012 00:26:18 +0000 Chronicle Staff At its June 5, 2012 meeting, the Ann Arbor planning commission recommended rezoning two parcels that were recently acquired for expansion of the Bluffs Nature Area at 1099 N. Main St., north of Sunset Road.

A 1.12-acre parcel to the north of the Bluffs – connecting the existing parkland to Huron View Boulevard – is currently zoned O (office), and had been donated to the city by a nursing home near that site. A 0.57-acre addition to the south connects the existing parkland to Sunset Road and is currently zoned R4C (multiple-family dwelling). It had been purchased by the city from the Elks lodge, using funds from the open space and parkland preservation millage. Both parcels are recommended to be rezoned as PL (public land).

The recommendation will now be forwarded to the Ann Arbor city council for its consideration.

This brief was filed from the second-floor council chambers of city hall at 301 E. Huron, where planning commission meetings are held. A more detailed report will follow: [link]

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Sustaining Ann Arbor’s Environmental Quality Sun, 15 Jan 2012 22:00:35 +0000 Mary Morgan Ann Arbor city staff and others involved in resource management – water, solid waste, the urban forest and natural areas – spoke to a crowd of about 100 people on Jan. 12 to highlight work being done to make the region more environmentally sustainable.

Matt Naud

Matt Naud, Ann Arbor's environmental coordinator, moderated a panel discussion on resource management – the topic of the first in a series of four sustainability forums, all to be held at the Ann Arbor District Library. (Photos by the writer.)

It was the first of four public forums, and part of a broader sustainability initiative that started informally nearly two years ago, with a joint meeting of the city’s planning, environmental and energy commissions. The idea is to help shape decisions by looking at a triple bottom line: environmental quality, economic vitality, and social equity.

In early 2011, the city received a $95,000 grant from the Home Depot Foundation to fund a formal sustainability project. The project’s main goal is to review the city’s existing plans and organize them into a framework of goals, objectives and indicators that can guide future planning and policy. Other goals include improving access to the city’s plans and to the sustainability components of each plan, and to incorporate the concept of sustainability into city planning and future city plans.

In addition to city staff, this work has been guided by volunteers who serve on four city advisory commissions: Park, planning, energy and environmental. Many of those members attended the Jan. 12 forum, which was held at the downtown Ann Arbor District Library.

The topics of the forums reflect four general themes that have been identified to shape the sustainability framework: Resource management; land use and access; climate and energy; and community. The Jan. 12 panel on resource management was moderated by Matt Naud, the city’s environmental coordinator. Panelists included Laura Rubin, executive director of the Huron River Watershed Council (and a member of the city’s greenbelt advisory commission); Kerry Gray, the city’s urban forest and natural resource planning coordinator; Jason Tallant of the city’s natural area preservation program; Tom McMurtrie, Ann Arbor’s solid waste coordinator, who oversees the city’s recycling program; and Chris Graham, chair of the city’s environmental commission.

Dick Norton, chair of the University of Michigan urban and regional planning program, also participated by giving an overview of sustainability issues and challenges that local governments face. [The university has its own sustainability initiative, including broad goals announced by president Mary Sue Coleman last fall.]

The Jan. 12 forum also included opportunities for questions and comments from the audience. That commentary covered a wide range of topics, from concerns over Fuller Road Station and potential uses for the Library Lot, to suggestions for improving the city’s recycling and composting programs. Even the issue of Argo Dam was raised. The controversy over whether to remove the dam spiked in 2010, but abated after the city council didn’t vote on the question, thereby making a de facto decision to keep the dam in place.

Naud said he’s often joked that the only sure way to get 100 people to come to a meeting is to say the topic is a dam – but this forum had proven him wrong. The city is interested in hearing from residents, he said: What sustainability issues are important? How would people like to be engaged in these community discussions?

The forum was videotaped by AADL staff and will be posted on the library’s website. Additional background on the Ann Arbor sustainability initiative is on the city’s website. See also Chronicle coverage: “Building a Sustainable Ann Arbor,” and an update on the project given at the November 2011 park advisory commission meeting.

Sustainability & Resource Management: Setting the Stage

Dick Norton, chair of the University of Michigan urban and regional planning program, began the panel presentation by saying that he’d been asked to talk about the big picture concepts related to these themes, and challenges that local governments face in dealing with them. He emphasized that the concept of sustainability encompasses more than just the environment, but that this first forum would focus on environmental issues.

Dick Norton

Dick Norton, chair of the University of Michigan urban and regional planning program, and a member of the Huron River Watershed Council executive committee.

Norton gave a brief overview of possible ways to think about attributes of a clean environment, related to topics that would be discussed by panelists. For air and water quality, it’s important that those resources are unpolluted, available in sufficient quantity, and that residents have adequate access. Viable ecosystems are one way to provide clean air and water, he said. Ecosystems provide filtering functions, and are a source of biodiversity – we suffer if we homogenize our environmental base, he said. Ecosystems also provide an aesthetic quality, making places pleasant to live.

Regarding responsible resource use, Norton pointed to the three Rs: Reduce, reuse, recycle. Recycling is good, he said, but reuse is better and reducing is the best approach to responsible resource use. It’s also important to think about the waste stream, and how waste can be used as input for new systems. Composting is one example of that.

Norton then outlined four challenges that local governments face when dealing with these issues. The first is factual uncertainty. The world is complex, and there is a great amount of scientific uncertainty. That gives people ammunition to argue against environmental protection, he said. There’s uncertainty over when a substance becomes pollution, for example. Carbon dioxide or arsenic are common elements – at what amounts do those elements become pollutants? Another uncertainty relates to resource depletion. The environment is a resilient receptor, Norton said – it can take a lot of shock to its system. But at what point does disruption and depletion of resources become too great? That uncertainty makes it difficult for government to act, he said.

Moral disagreements are another challenge for governments, Norton said. Is nature a form of sacred life, or just toilet paper on a stump? Should nature be preserved at the expense of jobs? And who gets to decide? Norton said he tells his students that if you have a collaborative planning process, you’ll encounter a plurality of values. That’s a challenge.

Capacity problems – both legal and financial – are also an issue, Norton said. Local governments are creatures of the state, he said, and can only do what the state enables them to do by law. A lot of local officials are reticent to undertake proactive environmental protection, but they have a lot more capacity to act than they think, he contended.

Regarding fiscal capacity, Norton noted that financial resources are highly strained, and there’s a sentiment that local governments can’t afford this “sustainability stuff.” But Norton argued that energy efficiency, for example, is often less expensive in the long term, though it usually requires a higher upfront investment. He encouraged officials to make decisions based on a longer timeframe.

The final challenge Norton cited is a category he called “unhappy propensities” – localism, parochialism and inertia. Localism is the attitude that “we get to decide,” he said. Parochialism is the belief that if something is happening outside of our borders, we don’t need to worry about it. That works if the problems are downstream, but not so much if it’s an upstream problem headed our way.

Then there’s the challenge of inertia: We’ve always done it this way, so why change? Norton noted that sustainability is a different way of looking at things, and that means change. Ann Arbor is stepping out in front of other communities, Norton said, and is pushing these boundaries. He encouraged a broader perspective, looking at decisions as they fit into a bigger system.

Water Resources: Protecting the Huron River

Laura Rubin, executive director of the Huron River Watershed Council, began by describing the history of HRWC. The nonprofit was founded in 1965 by 17 communities along the Huron River who were concerned about protecting this water resource. They knew they couldn’t just look at it from the perspective of where the river flowed through their individual jurisdictions.

Sometimes people overlook the value of the watershed, Rubin said. In addition to providing drinking water, the river also is an asset for recreation, property values, wildlife habitat and stormwater control. The watershed – including the Huron River and its tributaries – is arguably the region’s largest natural feature.

Laura Rubin

Laura Rubin, executive director of the Huron River Watershed Council.

The Huron River is the only river in southeast Michigan that’s a state-designated “natural river.” The designation affords the river special protections, she said, related to development and vegetation. The watershed also is protected by strong local and regional regulations and partnerships, Rubin said, citing the Huron Clinton Metropolitan Authority as one example.

The watershed offers a wealth of recreational and fishing opportunities, Rubin said, and provides a habitat to threatened and endangered wildlife, including the northern madtom, the snuffbox mussel, the prairie fringed orchid, the least shrew, and the massasauga rattlesnake.

But although the Huron River is the cleanest urban river in Michigan, she said, there are also problems. Many sections are classified as “impaired,” based on the inability to meet certain uses, like swimming or fishing, as laid out in the federal Clean Water Act. Two major problems are excess levels of phosphorus and E. coli – a problem that’s especially common in urban areas, Rubin said. Sources for E. coli include animal and human feces, which can be discharged into the river from wastewater or sewer overflow during storms.

Other problems causing the impaired classification relate to sediment, erratic flows, low dissolved oxygen, mercury and PCBs.

Rubin outlined several broader threats to the area’s water resources. The region, sandwiched between the urban areas of Detroit and Lansing, has lost many of its natural areas, she said. Ann Arbor itself has become more urbanized, which has contributed to the loss of habitat, as well as to pollution, warmer temperatures and erratic flows.

Hydrologic changes are another threat. The river has 97 documented dams, Rubin said, and this changes flow patterns tremendously. It leads to the loss of wetlands, causes sedimentation, and alters the way that the ecosystem functions.

Rubin also identified “non-point” source pollution as a threat to the watershed. As rain falls onto roofs, into gutters, and onto roads, it collects pollutants that eventually flow into the river. That’s the No. 1 cause of water pollution in the U.S., she said.

A variety of tools are used to address these issues, Rubin said, including watershed-wide partnerships, data that’s collected and analyzed, advocacy and education. Due to efforts by the watershed council and the University of Michigan, the Huron is one of the best studied rivers in Michigan, she said.

The watershed council pushes people to do more to protect the river, Rubin said. Staff and volunteers work on water-quality monitoring, for example, as well as an adopt-a-stream program, which includes data collection and experiential learning.

There’s value in having “eyes on the river,” Rubin concluded. Among other things, it enables the long-term tracking of trends, and provides a scientific basis to advocate for local and state protection policies.

Following Rubin’s presentation, Matt Naud asked the audience a trivia question: How many cities use the Huron River for their drinking water? Just one – Ann Arbor, he said. That’s why the city cares about its upstream partners.

Solid Waste: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Tom McMurtrie, the city’s solid waste coordinator, began by saying that recycling is one of the most effective things that people can do to reduce their carbon footprint. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has identified Ann Arbor as one of the nation’s top recycling communities, he said. So how did the city get to this point?

Kerry Gray, Jason Tallant, Tom McMurtrie

From left: Kerry Gray, Ann Arbor's urban forest & natural resource planning coordinator; Jason Tallant of the city's natural area preservation program; and Tom McMurtrie, solid waste coordinator.

In the 1970s, the city brought curbside recycling to every home in the city, McMurtrie said. Back then, recycling required more work – residents had to separate green glass from brown glass, cardboard from newspapers. It reminded him of a favorite New Yorker cartoon: “Recycling in Hell.”

In 1991 the city introduced two-stream recycling. And every multi-family building was added, which doubled participation. The city built a sorting facility at the location of the current drop-off site.

Then in 2010, McMurtrie said, the city moved to another level of recycling: single stream. New plastics were added to the list of recyclables, and new carts with radio-frequency tags were deployed, which allowed single-family homes to record their recycling and be eligible for a rewards program.

In mid-2010, a $3.5 million overhaul was completed to the city’s materials recovery facility – known as the MRF (pronounced “murf”)– at 4150 Platt Road. Overall tonnages of recyclables have tripled, he said, with materials coming from as far away as Toledo and Lansing. Four new hybrid recycling trucks were purchased, which use less fuel.  Four more hybrid trucks will likely be added in 2012, he said.

McMurtrie also pointed to the concepts of “reduce” and “reuse.” His suggestions included shopping for fresh food at the farmers market, where less packaging is used, and using reusable bags whenever possible. About two years ago, the city also added the option of including food waste in its composting program, he noted. Every pound of food or yard waste that’s composted greatly reduces the burden on landfills, he said.

Showing images extracted from a core boring taken at the closed Ann Arbor landfill, McMurtrie noted that most materials in the landfill haven’t decomposed.

McMurtrie concluded by saying that the city is working on an update of its five-year solid waste plan, and he encouraged residents to participate by giving their input. The first meeting will be held on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012 from 4-6 p.m. in the 4th floor conference room in Larcom City Hall, 301 E. Huron. The meeting is open to the public.

Urban Forest Management

Kerry Gray, the city’s urban forest and natural resource planning coordinator, said that until recently, the city didn’t have a comprehensive understanding of its urban forest resources. In 2009, city staff finished an updated tree inventory, cataloging location and maintenance needs, among other things. The city has 42,776 street trees, 6,923 park trees (in mowed areas), and 7,269 potential street planting locations, she said.

Maintenance needs were also inventoried, with 1,642 trees identified as priority removals and 3,424 trees that needed priority pruning. An additional 43,271 trees needed routine pruning, and 1,362 stumps needed to be removed.

In 2010, the city completed an evaluation of its urban tree canopy, Gray reported. The canopy covers nearly 33% of the city. Of that, 46% is located in residential areas, 23.7% is in the city-owned right-of-way, and 22% is in recreational areas, such as parks. Compared to other cities, Ann Arbor’s tree canopy is average, she said.

Chart of tree diversity in Ann Arbor

Chart of tree diversity in Ann Arbor. (Links to larger image)

Gray addressed the issue of tree diversity, and said the city discourages the planting of maple trees, which account for 37% of the public tree population. ”Plant something other than a maple – that’s my take-away message,” she said.

Ann Arbor’s urban forest is a tremendous asset, Gray said. Public trees provide an estimated annual $2.8 million in benefits related to energy, property values, stormwater control, air quality and other benefits.

But in the past, there hasn’t been a management plan for the urban forest, unlike the city’s other assets, Gray said. So in 2010, city staff began developing an asset management plan, with the goal of maintaining the urban forest and maximizing its benefits. The city is doing a lot of public engagement related to this plan, she said – more information is online at

Matt Naud added a coda to Gray’s presentation, noting that the city lost about 10,000 city street trees that were attacked by the emerald ash borer several years ago. The city spent over $2 million just to remove the trees, he said, and that doesn’t count what it cost residents for tree removal on private property. That’s why tree diversity is important – you don’t know what’s coming next, he said.

Natural Area Preservation

Jason Tallant of the city’s natural area preservation program (NAP) began his comments by showing a slide of the Furstenberg Nature Area – it’s the image he sees when he closes his eyes to think about the topic of sustainability, because it integrates the built environment with the native landscape.

NAP straddles the line between providing services for people, he said, and empowering them to preserve natural features in the city’s parkland and on their own property. He read NAP’s mission statement: “To protect and restore Ann Arbor’s natural areas and foster an environmental ethic among its citizens.”

Kerry Gray, Dave Delphius, Jason Tallant

Ann Arbor resident David Diephuis, center, talks with urban forester Kerry Gray, left, and Jason Tallant of the city's natural area preservation program.

A lot of sustainability practices are based on history, Tallant said, specifically what occurred prior to European settlement. He quoted from the 1836 land survey notes of John M. Gordon, who described the land between Ann Arbor and Dixboro: “Oaks of the circumference of 9-15 feet abound in the forests… White Oak and Burr Oak at intervals of 30-40 feet with an undergrowth 5-6’ high which has the appearance of being annually burnt down as I am informed it is.”

The history of the land is really important when thinking about how to move into the future, Tallant said. He showed a slide of the types of vegetation on land in the Ann Arbor area prior to settlement, and noted that much of the area had been covered by a mixed-oak or oak-hickory forests, with wetlands along the river. It wasn’t a monoculture, he noted, but rather a mixed environment, depending on topography, hydrology, soil type and other factors.

NAP facilitates restoration work in all of the city parks and natural areas, Tallant said. Their work includes conducting controlled burns, taking detailed inventories of the plants and animals within the city, and knowing what’s occurring in the landscape. They also do invasive species control, he said – when you see someone walking along with an orange-colored bag full of garlic mustard, they’re restoring the land so that its biodiversity isn’t diminished. That work helps create a resilient ecosystem, he said.

Outreach, Education

Chris Graham, chair of the city’s environmental commission, said he hoped that the previous speakers had given the audience an idea of the extraordinary things that Ann Arbor is doing related to sustainability. Residents should be very proud, he said.

Graham explained that the original “Ann’s arbor” was a grove of large burr oak trees – the “children” of those early oaks are obvious in the area near St. Andrew’s Church, he said, north of city hall. Underneath those oaks were roughly 300 species of plants that the native Indians burned every year.

Just a few decades ago, there were no regulations related to landmark trees, Graham noted. Controversies in the 1970s and ’80s, when development resulted in the removal of many of those trees, led to changes in Chapter 62 of the city code – what’s known as the natural features ordinance, Graham said. Ann Arbor stepped up courageously, he said, and added a natural features standard that must be met in order to gain site plan approval for any development.

What are natural features? Graham asked. His list includes woodlands, native forest fragments, some wetlands, waterways, and floodplains. Related to native forest fragments, Graham said there’s an idea hatching to develop a stewardship program, similar to the city’s natural area preservation program. The new program would look at native forest fragments in all parts of the city, including the University of Michigan and private land – the fabric of natural features knits itself across the city, he said. The plan would be to do outreach and education, so that property owners would know what’s in their back yards.

The children of trees that existed in the 1820s won’t last without help, Graham said. “Come join us in this endeavor.”

Questions & Comments

During the last portion of the forum, panelists fielded questions and commentary from the audience. This report summarizes the questions and presents them thematically.

Questions & Comments: Recycling

Question: Why doesn’t the city’s recycling program accept No. 3 plastics or biodegradable materials?

Tom McMurtrie noted that No. 3 plastics – made from polyvinyl chloride – are a significant contaminant if mixed with other plastics. The city needed to be responsible, he said, and fortunately there aren’t a lot of No. 3 products in the waste stream.

As for biodegradables, McMurtrie said that’s been a challenging issue. On the surface, it looks like a good idea, he said. However, research shows that biodegradable products break down into very small particulates that aren’t necessarily good for the environment. Most of the particulates are petroleum-based, he said, and end up staying in the environment in that form. The other issue is that if those particulates end up in the recycling stream, they act as contaminants.

Question: Are there plans to eventually accept post-consumer food waste? And how much contamination ends up in the compost stream?

McMurtrie fielded this question too, inviting the speaker to participate in the city’s solid waste plan update. This issue of post-consumer food waste will be explored, although there are some repercussions around that issue, he said. Regarding contamination in the compost stream, that hasn’t been a problem, McMurtrie said. The city switched to a private operator about a year ago, and it’s worked out well, he said. [At its Dec. 6, 2010 meeting, the city council approved contracting with WeCare Organics to operate the city's composting facility.]

Question: If reducing waste is really the goal, how will incentives be built into the program to achieve that goal? There are incentives to recycle, but how can the city encourage reduction?

McMurtrie called this a great question, and said that a simplistic approach might be to use a graduated fee system for trash collection – to charge more for large trash containers, and less for smaller ones. The city is already doing that to some extent, he said. Households that use 96-gallon trash containers pay a fee each year – $38 – while there’s no fee for 64-gallon or 32-gallon containers. Perhaps the city could incentivize more in that area.

Jeanine Palms

Jeanine Palms asked city staff about whether there are plans to give incentives to residents for reducing their waste, not simply for recycling it.

Jeanine Palms, who had asked the original question, wondered if there was any way to charge for the actual amount of waste that a household produced. McMurtrie replied that it’s an option, but that city council has been hesitant to take that approach. It risks becoming a kind of regressive tax on low-income people with large families, he said.

Dick Norton weighed in, saying that the answer depends on what you want to reduce. Palms’ question and McMurtrie’s answer had focused on trash, he said, but there are other things that people consume, like energy, water and land. Urban planners try to design cities to create greater density and transportation systems so that people can live more compactly. The ways that cities are built out impacts how much people consume, he said.

Norton also pointed to research on the impact of monetizing behavior. One study looked at a daycare center, which started charging parents who showed up late to pick up their kids. The intent was to create a disincentive for people, and to eliminate the late pick-ups. But instead, more people started showing up late, Norton said. When a monetary amount was attached to that behavior, people decided it was worth the amount charged. So incentives can result in perverse outcomes, he noted.

We have to start changing our cultural expectations, Norton continued. We have to stop thinking about living the big life, then throwing it away later. And that’s a tougher nut to crack, he said.

Chris Graham pointed to another thing that could be reduced: Turf grass. The amount of energy, pollutants, time and effort that’s spent on maintaining lawns in the city is counterproductive when trying to achieve sustainability, he said.

Laura Rubin addressed the question from the perspective of water resources. She noted that the city has a graduated water rate structure, so that heavier users pay more. The Huron River Watershed Council have been holding focus groups on the issue of water conservation. Because water is plentiful in the Great Lakes region, the issue of saving water isn’t always compelling. It’s better to tie the issue to energy conservation, she said.

When people talk about reasons why they might want to save water, the knee-jerk answer is to save money, Rubin noted. But when asked, no one in the focus groups could report what their water bill is, she said. Rubin concluded by noting that while our culture seems to be driven by money and economics, other motivations are often at play.

Matt Naud pointed out that information on water consumption per household is available on the city’s website. Residents can get a lot of data about their water usage by typing in their address and water bill account number, he said.

Comment: Portland, Oregon, has mandated that residents compost their food waste – that’s a direction that Ann Arbor should be headed. Currently, compost pick-up in Ann Arbor runs from April through December. I still eat fruits and vegetables in the winter – compost pick-up should be year-round.

Matt Naud encouraged the speaker to participate in the city’s solid waste plan update, saying that this type of feedback is exactly the kind of thing the city needs to hear.

Question: I live in an apartment in order to be environmentally sound. When will food compost pick-up be available for multiple family dwellings? I now take my food scraps to friends who live outside the city and raise chickens. So there’s no lack of motivation.

Matt Naud again suggested that this kind of feedback would be useful for the city’s solid waste plan update. Tom McMurtrie said that most multi-family buildings can get compost carts. Requests can be made by calling 99-GREEN.

Questions & Comment: Air Quality – Fuller Road Station

Question: The proposed Fuller Road Station will be a parking structure with almost 1,000 spaces that will bring 1,000 cars into an area near Fuller Pool and Fuller Park. It seems like this will affect the air quality along the Fuller Road corridor and the Huron River. It’s already a heavily used traffic corridor with a lot of emissions, and it seems like Fuller Road Station would really change the quality of air.

Matt Naud said he wasn’t sure if a formal air-quality study has been completed for the Fuller Road Station project. He offered to contact Eli Cooper, the city’s transportation program manager, and find out what’s being done or what the plan is.

Questions & Comment: Water Quality – Argo Dam

Comment: I was really surprised to see the number of dams along the Huron River. Fred Pearce wrote a book called “When the Rivers Run Dry.” He has almost nothing good to say about dams.

Laura Rubin noted that there are 97 documented dams along the Huron River – until recently there were 98, but one was removed in Dexter. Beyond that, there are at least 50 other dams that the Huron River Watershed Council has discovered while taking inventory for a new dam management tool it’s developing. A lot of the dams are connected to aging infrastructure, she noted – used at former wastewater treatment plants, or to generate electricity. Some dams have been retired from their original uses. Some are just piles of rubble.

Dams are very detrimental from an environmental point of view, Rubin said, but socially they can be very successful. They can have recreational value. For the Huron River, flood control isn’t a problem, so dams aren’t generally needed for that purpose, she said. A lot of river systems and social systems have been engineered, she noted, and it’s hard to change that mentality.

Dick Norton said the issue highlights the fact that “green” and “nature” don’t have the same meaning for everyone. Norton, who’s on the executive committee of the Huron River Watershed Council, noted that the council was involved in discussions about whether to remove Argo Dam, and it had been painful. [The watershed council advocated for dam removal.] A lot of people who would typically be on the same side of an environmental issue were on different sides of the Argo Dam issue, because they valued natural resources in different ways, he said. The debate was emblematic of issues that society struggles with, he added. Norton said he sympathizes with local officials, who get hammered by people on various sides of an issue.

Questions & Comment: Public Outreach

Comment: I’ve been a townie since 1967 – and have been to a lot of the concerts that are in the posters hanging around the room. [The concert posters were part of a retrospective organized by the Ann Arbor District Library called "Freeing John Sinclair."] Outreach needs to go much further.

My neighborhood is concerned about the Gelman 1,4 dioxane plume, and about property values. Very few of my neighbors are paying attention to other issues that were mentioned tonight. They don’t want taxes to go up, or property values to do down, and they don’t want to pay more for a trash cart. They need to understand sustainability issues in ways that make sense to them. I’d like to see more outreach.

Matt Naud acknowledged that outreach is a challenge. Funding for this kind of effort is one issue – many people who work on sustainability issues are funded by grants, and “that’s not sustainable,” he said.

Questions & Comment: Land Use, Natural Areas – Library Lot

Question: Will the city have a public conversation about the future use for the top of the new underground parking structure – the Library Lot? A lot of people would like to see a park or green space there. Is the city going to ask for ideas from the public?

Sabra Briere

Sabra Briere, Ward 1 city councilmember.

Matt Naud asked city councilmember Sabra Briere – the only elected city official who attended the forum – to comment.

Briere noted that early last fall, at the city council’s direction, the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority began to explore alternate uses of  the five city-owned parcels in downtown Ann Arbor. Those parcels include the Library Lot on South Fifth Avenue north of William; the former YMCA lot north of William between Fourth and Fifth avenues; the Palio lot at the northeast corner of Main and William; the Kline lot on Ashley north of William; and the bottom floor of the parking structure at Fourth and William.

This is a plan that hasn’t been developed yet, so no one can say what will happen, she said, but part of the plan will be to solicit public input. In the near term, she said, the Library Lot will be a surface parking lot, with trees planted. That’s not the long-term plan, she said. However, Briere added, no one knows how long the near-term will last.

Dick Norton commented that there’s a need to see how to make urban environments more green, but it’s also important to worry about maintaining farmland outside of the city. Development should go into already developed cities – it’s important to think about how to accommodate more people in urban areas so that large tracts of farmland and forest can be preserved outside of cities. It’s a difficult trade-off, he noted, especially because different jurisdictions are involved, and different perspectives. Residents of the city don’t want it to change and grow bigger, while farmers don’t want to be told that they can’t sell their land for development – in many cases, that’s their retirement plan.

But if the city wants to reduce energy and preserve farmland, turning the Library Lot into open space probably isn’t the best use for it. The site should probably be put to a more urban use, Norton said. It’s something to think about.

Matt Naud noted that at one of the future sustainability sessions, the city’s greenbelt program will likely be included. [Laura Rubin of the Huron River Watershed Council is a member of the city's greenbelt advisory commission, which oversees the greenbelt program. The program, funded by a 30-year millage, preserves farmland and open space outside of the city by acquiring property development rights.]

Comment: Some years ago, we dug out the grass on our lawn extension and replanted it with native plants – and we were ticketed by the city. The city needs to straighten out that disconnect.

Jason Tallant of the city’s natural areas preservation program applauded the planting of native plants in the easement. Some residents are putting in rain gardens or bioswales, which is great, he said. But the key point, he said, relates to public safety. If the plantings obstruct the view – of pedestrians using a crosswalk, for example – that’s a problem. That’s why the city enforces height restrictions on plants in the easement, he said. The thing to remember is “the right plant for the right place.” [The height restriction limits vegetation to an average height of 36 inches above the road surface.]

Questions & Comments: Future Forums

Question: It was interesting to hear about what the city is doing, but this forum didn’t match my expectations. I thought you’d have more opportunities for asking questions and engaging in dialogue. As I decide whether to attend future sessions, I wonder if the format will be the same?

This is an experiment, Matt Naud said. The first forum was intended to give people a taste of what the city is doing toward sustainability in different areas – city staff are never quite sure how much information is getting out, he said. The question is whether to hold longer sessions, to give the public more time to ask questions and give commentary, or to hold smaller focus sessions that take a deeper dive into these issues.

Naud said the city staff would like to hear what kind of format would be most effective – feedback forms were provided at the forum. Basically, if people want a certain kind of meeting and will attend it, the city will hold it, he said.

Naud said he’s held public meetings about the Gelman 1,4 dioxane issue and only a dozen people would come. It’s hard to know what issues will draw a turnout. He said he’s often joked that the only sure way to get 100 people to come to a meeting is to say the topic is a dam – but this forum has proven him wrong, he said. The city wants to know how people prefer to give feedback, and how this discussion should move forward, Naud said.

Future Forums

Three more forums in this sustainability series are planned. All forums will be held at the downtown Ann Arbor District Library building, 343 S. Fifth Ave. starting at 7 p.m.

  • Feb. 9, 2012: Land Use and Access – including transportation designs, infrastructure, land uses, built environment, and public spaces.
  • March 8, 2012: Climate and Energy – including an overview of Ann Arbor’s climate action plan, climate impacts, renewable and alternative energy, energy efficiency and conservation.
  • April 12, 2012: Community – including housing, public safety, public art, recreation, outreach, civic engagement, and stewardship of community resources.

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Creek Project Ramps Up at Leslie Park Golf Tue, 03 Jan 2012 17:34:39 +0000 Mary Morgan Ann Arbor park advisory commission (Dec. 20, 2011): Park commissioners were briefed about a project on the section of Traver Creek running through the city’s Leslie Park golf course, addressing erosion and stormwater issues along the streambank.

Jen Lawson, Doug Kelly

Jen Lawson, the city's water quality manager, talks with Doug Kelly, the city's director of golf, prior to the start of the Dec. 20, 2011 park advisory commission meeting. (Photos by the writer.)

Jen Lawson, the city of Ann Arbor’s water quality manager, said the city hopes to hire a design consultant in January, with preliminary designs for the project ready by April. Final designs and construction plans would be done by July, and construction is projected to start in November of 2012.

The project would be completed by the spring of 2013, Lawson said, although an additional two growing seasons would be needed for plants to take hold. The intent is to minimize the impact on golfers during construction – parks and recreation manager Colin Smith noted that the project team is sensitive to the need for revenues from the course.

During the December meeting, commissioners also got an update on the city’s natural area preservation program, which has increased the number of volunteers who help with tasks like invasive species control and animal/plant monitoring.

Communications from staff included an update on the Argo Dam bypass, where work has stopped for the season. Additional work, including paving of a footpath, will occur in the spring. And in communications from commissioners, Sam Offen reminded his colleagues of the upcoming sustainability forums. The first forum is on Thursday, Jan. 12, focusing on resource management. All forums, held once a month, will be at the downtown Ann Arbor District Library building, 343 S. Fifth Ave. starting at 7 p.m.

Natural Area Preservation Update

Jason Tallant, a staff member of the city’s natural area preservation program, gave a presentation about the work that NAP does. He began by noting NAP’s mission: “To protect and restore Ann Arbor’s natural areas and foster an environmental ethic among its citizens.” It’s something he had to recite when he first started working at NAP, Tallant said, and something the staff regularly evokes.

NAP tracks volunteer hours by the type of work that volunteers do, Tallant said, and has tracked that data going back to 1994 – the year after the current NAP manager, David Borneman, was hired. Since about 2007, the program has courted private groups to volunteer, from nonprofits like SOS Community Services to companies like Toyota. The number of hours in that category grew from 1,613 in 2007 to 5,031 in 2011. The next-highest category of volunteer hours is logged during public workdays, with 1,464 hours in 2011.

Tallant credited former NAP volunteer coordinator Jason Frenzel with expanding the private group volunteer effort. The work days often include several hundred people, like the more than 400 Community High School students who volunteered at eight different parks in one day this past year. Tallant said that NAP’s field crew, which he supervises, has spent most of this fall following up on work that was started during volunteer work days over the summer.

Controlled burning is the primary task that NAP performs for ecological restoration to achieve the greatest results, Tallant said. But in term of hours spent by staff or volunteers, it’s a small percentage compared to other tasks – 343 hours in 2011, out of a total of 11,869 volunteer hours. Volunteers spend most of their time doing invasive species control, he said, logging 4,737 hours on that task. Other tasks include trail work (2,748 hours), administrative work (659 hours), revegetation (561 hours) inventory and monitoring of animals and plants (594 hours), stewardship training (118 hours), and trash pick-up (98 hours).

This past burn season was the wettest one on record, Tallant noted. Even so, NAP workers did controlled burns on 72 acres over eight days. Two percent of that land was on rain gardens, reflecting the fact that NAP has started to take over maintenance of the city’s rain gardens, he said. Other burns occurred in woodland (45%), prairies/old fields (19%), savanna/prairies (18%), and wet prairies (16%).

Natural Area Preservation Update: Commissioner Discussion

PAC chair Julie Grand asked about the transition for managing volunteers. Jason Frenzel, the former NAP volunteer coordinator, left that job earlier this year to join the Huron River Watershed Council. David Borneman, NAP’s manager, noted that Frenzel had worked with the city in that position for about eight years. It was a Teamster job, but it hasn’t been filled, he said. They’re taking a step back and looking at the broader organization, Borneman said, to decide how to handle that work.

Gwen Nystuen noted that in addition to NAP volunteers, the rest of the parks system also uses volunteers – for the adopt-a-park program, as one example. Colin Smith, the city’s parks and recreation manager, said the staff is looking at how to coordinate volunteers for all the programs, including NAP. Gayle Hurn is volunteer outreach coordinator for the overall parks system. Borneman added that there’s a recognition for greater consistency across all areas regarding volunteer outreach.

Leslie Park Streambank Stabilization

Jen Lawson, the city’s water quality manager, gave a presentation on a streambank stabilization project at Leslie Park, where one of the city’s two golf courses is located. The Traver Creek bank is exhibiting some erosion, as any urban stream would, she said. High volumes of sediment are being swept away, deposited downstream and into the Huron River. The vegetation along that stretch of the creek is golf course turf grass, which provides a limited buffer between the land and the creek. As a result, there are areas along the creek that experience regular flooding, Lawson said.

The project has three goals, she said: (1) improving stormwater quality, because the creek is incorporated into the city’s stormwater system; (2) improving several ecological aspects, such as reducing phosphorus that’s discharged into the river, and enhancing the habitat for wildlife; and (3) improving the recreational experience for golfers.

Lawson described several design objectives for the project, and noted that staff were putting together a request for proposals (RFP) that would be issued soon. The design objectives include:

  • Addressing bank erosion and reducing the phosphorus load in Traver Creek, a tributary to the Huron River.
  • Assessing hydrologic, hydraulic and geomorphic conditions to develop appropriate stabilization measures.
  • Possibly retrofitting the downstream basin and upstream irrigation pond, which might involve moving the pump station. This might help with the limited detention of small flooding events.
  • Soliciting ideas for additional stormwater treatment.

The city hopes to hire a design consultant in January, with preliminary designs for the project ready by April. Final designs and construction plans would be done by July, and construction is projected to start in November of 2012. The project would be completed by the spring of 2013, Lawson said, although there would be an additional two-year growing season for plants to take hold.

Traver Creek bank

A photo included in the park advisory commission meeting information packet shows a section of the Traver Creek bank that's been eroded as it runs through the Leslie Park golf course.

The construction will occur in two phases, she said. The first phase, which involves heavy equipment and moving dirt, will take place during the winter when the ground is frozen, to minimize impact from construction runoff. The second phase entails planting grasses, sedges, perennials, wildflowers and other plants.

Because this is a stormwater infrastructure project, Lawson said, the city can use the state’s revolving loan fund, via Washtenaw County’s office of the water resources commissioner. There’s the potential for up to 50% loan forgiveness, if the city can show that it’s a “green” project, she said.

Gwen Nystuen asked if it would be easier to see the creek, after the project is completed. Yes, Lawson said. None of the plantings will grow tall, except in the areas where no golf is played.

Colin Smith, manager of parks & rec, said there’s good collaboration and an understanding of what’s needed in terms of revenues and recreational access at the golf course. He noted that Lawson has worked on this type of project at her previous job, with success. Lawson explained that the project she’d previously done was for a municipal golf course in Troy, which was also in an urban watershed. It’s important to meld the two types of land uses together, she said.

In response to a question from Sam Offen, Smith said the work will be staggered in stages, so that areas of the course that get the most play will be done first. That way, those areas will be ready when the season resumes in the spring of 2013. It’s obvious that they need to be extremely aware of the impact on golf revenues, Smith said. The intent is not to halt golf play at all, Lawson added.

Tim Berla noted that several years ago, a project at Mary Beth Doyle Park aimed to stabilize the stormwater flow and sediment going into Malletts Creek. The project had been designed so that earth-moving equipment could come in every few years to remove the sediment. He wondered if sediment that was collected in the wetlands there was being removed, and whether the same kind of removal would be needed along Traver Creek, too.

Lawson said the county is monitoring the amount of sediment at Mary Beth Doyle Park. No sediment has been removed yet, she said, but when it needs to happen, the county would handle it. For the Leslie Park golf course project, she said they aren’t yet sure how it will be designed. There’s some desire to take the stormwater retention ponds “offline” – that is, to design the ponds so that the creek doesn’t flow through them. Whenever there’s an impoundment, like a pond, the water flow slows and sediment settles out. The common solution is to have ponds there for stormwater control, she said. But the state Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) prefers to have an open creek, which is better from a habitat perspective.

The project’s ultimate design needs to take into account the hydrology of the site, Lawson said, and the multiple uses of the ponds – for sediment capture and stormwater control.

Tim Doyle asked for clarification about the location of the project. Lawson said it would run from where the creek crosses Traver Road to the south, to where it crosses Traver Road again to the north.

Misc. Communications

Every meeting includes opportunities for staff and commissioners to give updates or share information.

Misc. Communications: Dog Park, Argo Bypass, Grants

Colin Smith, the city’s parks and recreation manager, gave updates on several projects. He noted that the Olson dog park would be closed during the week of Dec. 26 for drainage work. Drain tiles will be installed to make it “less of a muddy mess” than it’s been in the past, he said. The dog park – part of Olson Park, which is located off of Dhu Varren Road on the city’s north side – is expected to reopen on Jan. 2.

Colin Smith, Christopher Taylor

From left: Colin Smith, Ann Arbor's parks & rec manager, and city councilmember Christopher Taylor (Ward 3), who also serves as an ex officio member of the city's park advisory commission.

Smith reported that work for the season has wrapped up at the Argo Dam bypass. Some additional work will be done in the spring on the spillway, he said, to calibrate the water flow. Paving of the paths along the bypass will also happen in April or May, though the path will be open throughout the winter. And the new bridge, which will be built where the concrete culvert is currently located, will also be installed in the spring.

John Lawter asked for an update on the whitewater area, which will be built in the Huron River near the bypass. DTE agreed to pay for the whitewater section – the utility is being required by the state to complete environmental remediation on its nearby property, which prompted its request that the city hold off on the part of the project that runs along the river. Smith said the city was still waiting to receive a copy of DTE’s remediation plan, but he noted that as he had reported at the November PAC meeting, DTE will now be paying for the whitewater part of the project.

Tim Berla wondered what the status would be of the land along the river that DTE is remediating. He thought it should be a park with a bandshell, and perhaps some commercial operations. He asked what the process would be for deciding what happens to that parcel.

Smith said that if the land came to the city, there would be a public process for deciding what happens to it. In several of the city’s master plans, there are references about possible uses for the site, he said. But all of that depends on whether the city owns the land, he noted. Currently, it is DTE property.

Sam Offen asked whether there would be any other changes at Argo and Gallup canoe liveries, as a result of this project. Parks staff will spend the winter months working out those details, Smith replied. They had always expected to add amenities like inner-tubing and rafts, he said. They’ll also likely be purchasing a new type of kayak that’s better suited for the bypass, since there will likely be more “banging around” as people navigate the descending pools. David Barrett noted that canoes and kayaks will no longer be banged up because of being hauled down stairs, as they had to be with the previous portage.

Smith said the staff will also work on developing a new guide for river tours, since there are now more options. They’ll likely bring something to PAC to review, and plan a grand opening in May or June for the public.

Tim Doyle asked whether there was any concern about congestion in the new bypass. Smith said congestion was an issue with the previous configuration, whenever it was busy. The challenge is to ensure that people know that there are different options, he said, and that they take the trip that best suits them.

Later in his report, Smith also noted that the city had received two state grants earlier in the month: $300,000 for a proposed Ann Arbor skatepark at Veterans Memorial Park, and $300,000 for improvements at the Gallup Park canoe livery. The grants were awarded by the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund.

For the skatepark, city parks staff would be meeting with skatepark organizers to talk about next steps, Smith said. It’s likely that a request for proposals (RFP) will be issued for a design/build, he said. When asked by Sam Offen to clarify, Smith said a design/build RFP would ask for bids that include both the skatepark’s design as well as its construction, in a single proposal. It’s similar to the RFP for the Argo Dam bypass, he said.

Misc. Communications: Rec & Ed Fitness Fair

Tim Berla, who’s also a member of the city’s recreation advisory commission (RAC), reported that Ann Arbor Rec & Ed will hold a fitness fair on Thursday, Jan. 12 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at Forsythe Middle School, 1655 Newport Road. The event will include a keynote speech by Pete Thomas, a local resident who was on Season 2 of the TV show The Biggest Loser.

John Lawter, Tim Berla

From left: John Lawter and Tim Berla of the Ann Arbor park advisory commission.

Berla said that at the last RAC meeting, commissioners learned that the Rec & Ed budget is still “iffy.” Rec & Ed is a program of the Ann Arbor Public Schools, and Berla said the program has cut costs to address its budget, including moving its offices to Pioneer High School, where they don’t have to pay rent. Berla said Rec & Ed didn’t raise prices for its offerings this year because the market is so competitive, but that means its margins are small, he said.

Berla also reported that Rec & Ed staff are pleased that the city’s softball and baseball diamonds will be renovated – leagues from Rec & Ed use the city’s ball diamonds, as well as ball diamonds that are owned by AAPS.

Misc. Communications: Sustainability Forums

Sam Offen reminded commissioners about the upcoming sustainability forums, starting in January. All forums will be held at the downtown Ann Arbor District Library building, 343 S. Fifth Ave. starting at 7 p.m.

  • Jan. 12, 2012: Resource Management – including natural areas, waste reduction, recycling, compost, local food systems, water and air quality. Panelists will include Matt Naud, the city’s environmental coordinator; Kerry Gray, the city’s urban forest & natural resource planning coordinator; Tom McMurtrie, Ann Arbor’s solid waste coordinator; and Dave Borneman, manager of the city’s natural area preservation program.
  • Feb. 9, 2012: Land Use and Access – including transportation designs, infrastructure, land uses, built environment, and public spaces.
  • March 8, 2012: Climate and Energy – including an overview of Ann Arbor’s climate action plan, climate impacts, renewable and alternative energy, energy efficiency and conservation.
  • April 12, 2012: Community – including housing, public safety, public art, recreation, outreach, civic engagement, and stewardship of community resources.

The four forums reflect categories in a framework that the city is developing to organize its existing goals as they relate to sustainability. The project, which began earlier this year, is being led by Jamie Kidwell and funded by a $95,000 grant the city received from the Home Depot Foundation. Four city commissions – park, planning, energy and environmental – participated in a Sept. 27, 2011 joint working session focused on prioritizing existing goals for the city that touch on sustainability issues. [For additional background, see Chronicle coverage of Kidwell's briefing at the Nov. 15 park advisory commission meeting.]

Misc. Communications: Leslie Science & Nature Center

Sam Offen also reported that a new executive director has been hired for the Leslie Science & Nature Center – Offen serves on the center’s board of directors. Until 2007, the nonprofit had been part of the city’s parks system, and the city continues to own the center’s property and buildings.

Susan Westhoff joined the center as executive director earlier this year, following the resignation of Greta Brunschwyler, who had served in that role since early 2010. Offen said he hoped to set up a time for Westhoff to attend an upcoming PAC meeting so that other commissioners could meet her.

Present: David Barrett, Tim Berla, Doug Chapman, Tim Doyle, Julie Grand, John Lawter, Karen Levin, Gwen Nystuen, Sam Offen, councilmember Christopher Taylor (ex-officio). Also Colin Smith, city parks manager.

Absent: Councilmember Mike Anglin (ex-officio).

Next meeting: PAC’s meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2012 begins at 4 p.m. in the city hall second-floor council chambers, 301 E. Huron St., Ann Arbor. [confirm date]

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More Concerns Aired on Fuller Road Station Tue, 29 Nov 2011 05:01:02 +0000 Mary Morgan Ann Arbor park advisory commission meeting (Nov. 15, 2011): With no action items on the agenda, PAC’s November meeting was filled with updates and honors, farewells and a few pointed comments regarding Fuller Road Station.

Lynn Bowen, Julie Grand, Colin Smith

At left: Lynn Bowen, an administrative assistant with the city who provides staff support for the park advisory commission, is retiring and was honored at PAC's November meeting. She has worked at the city for 26 years, including the last six years with parks and recreation. To the right are PAC chair Julie Grand and Colin Smith, the city's parks and recreation manager. (Photos by the writer.)

Commissioners were briefed by city staff about annual finances related to the land acquisition for parks and greenbelt programs, which are funded by a 30-year millage. They also got an update on the city’s marketing efforts for parks and recreation, and heard a report on the status of a sustainability project – several PAC commissioners had attended a September joint work session to help prioritize city goals related to environmental quality, economic vitality, and social equity.

Updates were also given about a sediment removal project in the Ruthven Nature Area, and about two parking-related projects at Riverside Park and Veterans Memorial Park.

In his manager’s report, Colin Smith noted that he’d taken a canoe run through the under-construction Argo Dam bypass pools – the new channel was a ”bit sportier” than he had expected, and is still being tweaked. He also told commissioners he’d received word that two state grant applications made by the city of Ann Arbor – $300,000 for the proposed Ann Arbor skatepark at Veterans Memorial Park, and $300,000 for improvements at the Gallup Park canoe livery – had ranked in the top 12 out of 100 applications statewide for funding from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund. That bodes well for the possibility that the grants will be awarded – a decision from the state is expected in December.

During the meeting commissioners also honored two volunteers with the city’s natural area preservation program – Sarah Newman and Drew Lathin – and said farewell to Lynn Bowen, the administrative assistant who works with PAC. The meeting was her last before retiring from the city.

An item not on the agenda – the proposed Fuller Road Station – drew focus from public commentary as well as some questions from commissioners later in the meeting. 

Fuller Road Station

The issue of Fuller Road Station has raised concerns for several members of PAC dating back nearly two years. The large parking structure, bus depot and possible rail station is proposed near the intersection of Fuller Road and Maiden Lane, near the University of Michigan medical campus on city-owned land. The land has been used as a surface parking lot since 1993, leased to the university, but is on property designated as parkland. It’s a joint project of the city of Ann Arbor and UM, but a formal agreement regarding its construction and operation hasn’t yet been finalized.

In June 2010, the commission passed a resolution that asked the 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 the council votes on the project. The resolution also asked that staff and the council ensure the project results in a net revenue gain for the parks system. PAC most recently got a detailed update on the project at its May 2011 meeting. The commission has not formally received word about whether the city council will agree to the requests made in the 2010 resolution.

There was no agenda item for the proposed Fuller Road Station, but the issue came up during public commentary as well as at the end of the meeting, with questions from commissioners.

Fuller Road Station: Public Commentary

Nancy Kaplan told commissioners that she was there to speak about transforming Fuller Park into a Fuller Road parking garage, saying it set many negative, troubling precedents. One precedent is that it’s OK to change a part-time surface parking lot into a parking garage. The fact that it’s a surface lot to accommodate parking for the University of Michigan is being used to justify building a parking garage with up to 1,600 spaces, with an expected structural life of 75 years, she said. This decreases the chances of reclaiming the Huron Valley as a beautiful amenity. Another negative precedent, Kaplan said, is circumventing the expectations of a 2008 ballot initiative passed by Ann Arbor voters, which requires a referendum in order to sell city parkland. This circumvention breaks with the trust of voters, who had a common understanding of what it meant to sell parkland, she said, and although this situation isn’t technically a sale, the result is the same.

A third negative precedent is accepting that the project will move forward without a due process hearing. Aside from the memorandum of understanding, no city council vote on the overall project has been taken. Yet at the Nov. 14 council work session, Kaplan noted, it was stated that a groundbreaking is expected this spring, and that public art is already being planned. Finally, she said the university has embarked on a sustainability initiative, but bringing up to 1,600 cars into the parking garage is counter to sustainability. She pointed out that Stanford University in California doesn’t subsidize employee parking, as UM does. Instead, as part of its reward system, Stanford pays employees not to park, and offers bus passes and free shuttles. The side benefit is that Stanford doesn’t have to build a lot of parking garages. Kaplan said that hopefully these negative precedents, plus the model of Stanford, are issues to be considered seriously.

Rita Mitchell continued the topic of Fuller Road Station. She began by noting that she’s a steward for the city’s natural area preservation (NAP) program, and takes great interest in parks. She said she appreciated PAC’s work. She asked that commissioners discuss and forward a series of questions to city council, to be reviewed in public, regarding plans to build a parking structure in Fuller Park. She gave a brief history of the property, noting that it was acquired by the city in the 1920s for use as parkland, and was the city’s first golf course. Starting in 1993, it was temporarily leased to UM for parking, and many problems have stemmed from that use. It’s already an area of great traffic congestion, and adding up to 1,600 more cars will create a range of problems, including air pollution, more polluted runoff, and conflicts with pedestrians, buses and bicyclists. Air pollution and health risks will increase in the summer for people, including children, who use Fuller Pool, located across the street, Mitchell said.

The city has spent significant money already, without discussing with the public whether parkland should be repurposed in this way, Mitchell said. She asked that PAC advise the city council to hold a public hearing on the issue, at a time that’s not influenced heavily by upcoming holiday schedules, so that the community can express their concerns. She noted that the council’s Nov. 14 work session had included discussion of art for the structure, and called it “outrageous” that this discussion would happen for a project that hasn’t yet been approved. The university is the primary beneficiary for this project, but the public doesn’t know who is negotiating with the university on this project. “Do you, as commissioners?” she asked. PAC should ask council to be provided with the names of those negotiating, and the specifications of the negotiations. Repurposing parkland subverts the letter and intent of the 2008 ballot initiative that requires a voter referendum on the sale of parkland, she said. The structure would have a 75-year lifespan, and 75 years for use of land is in effect a sale. But there’s been no discussion of a fair market value, or compensation to the citizens or parks system for the use of the land.

Mitchell also said she’s heard about the possible transfer of the Amtrak station to that site. While rail travel is a great idea, she said, there are also a range of concerns. Is it in the best interests of the city to build and run a train station? Should it be placed on parkland? If Ann Arbor is just one commuter stop, why do we need a 1,600-space parking structure? There hasn’t been adequate public discussion on this issue, Mitchell said. In addition, this summer a major water and sewer line were moved in Fuller Park – had that been discussed with PAC? Is the sign that’s now missing from the south end of Fuller Park a silent indication that the land is no longer part of the park system? Park commissioners are stewards of all city parks, Mitchell said. She urged them to start asking pointed questions and advocate for greater public participation in decisions that relate to parkland.

Fuller Road Station: Commissioner Questions

Later in the meeting, Gwen Nystuen asked city staff a series of questions about the Fuller Road Station project. She wondered about the legal status of the city’s parks, and how that relates to the project. She asked about the site plan for Fuller Road Station – if council approves the project, would it constitute a change of land use, and no longer be part of the parks system? These are issues that have never been discussed by city council, she noted. The land is part of the central Huron River valley, an area that has some of the least parkland per capita in the city, she said. This project would reduce it even more, she said, so it’s of concern to PAC. She also wondered about the status of the soccer field that had been in that area.

Colin Smith, the city’s parks and recreation manager, said these are legitimate questions. He asked Nystuen and other commissioners to send him whatever questions they had, and he would forward the questions to the city attorney or other relevant staff. He said the soccer field will be put in place again after utility work is finished on the south side of Fuller Road.

Tim Berla suggested asking representatives from the city attorney’s office, systems planning unit and Eli Cooper, the city’s transportation program manager, to attend a future PAC meeting to discuss the Fuller Road Station project. He noted that sometimes their answers are a bit opaque, and that it’s better to have the chance to ask follow-up questions in person, rather than to just get their answers in writing.

Open Space Millage Update

Ginny Trocchio of The Conservation Fund briefed commissioners on the annual financial report related to the land acquisition for parks and greenbelt programs. [A similar update was given to the greenbelt advisory commission by Kelli Martin, financial manager for the city’s community services unit, at GAC's Sept. 14 meeting.] [.pdf of land preservation annual report]

Under contract with the city, Trocchio is a Conservation Fund staff member who helps administer the city’s greenbelt program and land acquisition program for parks, which are both funded by the 30-year open space and parkland preservation millage. The 0.5 mill tax was approved by voters in 2003. Two-thirds of the millage proceeds are used for the greenbelt program, and one-third is allotted to parkland acquisition. PAC oversees the portion related to parkland acquisition.

Revenues from the millage were $2.164 million in fiscal 2011, down slightly from $2.262 million the previous year. In addition, the greenbelt program brought in nearly $2.8 million in federal grants during the year – the highest amount it has ever received. Those grants are from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm and Ranchland Protection Program, or FRPP. Investment income was $233,614 for the year, down from $492,576 in FY 2010. In total, $5.185 million in revenues came in for the combined greenbelt and parks acquisitions programs in FY 2011.

On the expense side, items included $1.2 million in debt service on the $20 million bond that the city issued in FY 2006. The greenbelt program spent $8.3 million during the year, related to land preservation projects. Parks spent $985,900 during the year, including two major purchases: (1) $592,503 for property off of South Pond owned by Wes Vivian and Elizabeth Kauffman, and (2) $369,160 for property next to the Bluffs Nature Area, owned by the Elks.

In FY 2011, $120,338 was paid to The Conservation Fund, which manages the greenbelt and park acquisition programs. Total administrative costs – including items like information technology (IT) and bond insurance – were $161,195. Administrative expenses accounted for 1.5% of the $10.672 million in total expenditures.

The fund balance stands at $10.3 million, down from $15.79 million a year ago. Of that, the portion for land acquisition for parks is $4.24 million.

Commissioners had no questions for Trocchio about the report.

Promoting Parks and Recreation

Kimberly Mortson, communications liaison for the city of Ann Arbor, gave a presentation on communications, marketing and social media for the parks and recreation system. She said that although she also does some work for other parts of the city’s community services area, 95% of her efforts are for parks and recreation.

Mortson noted that she started using Facebook and Twitter to promote city programs and events about two years ago. One of the advantages is that she can post a message one time, but there are an infinite number of people who’ll see it – and it doesn’t impact her budget, because Facebook and Twitter are free services. There’s a general Facebook page for parks and recreation, and other pages for specific units of parks and recreation, like the Ann Arbor farmers marketCobblestone Farm and canoe liveries, among others

Twitter page for Ann Arbor parks

Twitter page for Ann Arbor parks. (Links to Twitter)

On Twitter, the @a2parks account has over 1,800 followers, Mortson reported. Over the past year, staff has tweeted from events, like the re-opening of West Park after its renovations, or the Heisman Trophy appearance at Hanover Park. They also use the account to promote other activities and programs.

Parks and recreation has also started using FourSquare, a social networking website that allows users to “check in” from their smart phones or other mobile devices, when they arrive at their destination. Mortson said she’s uploaded all the city’s parks and recreation locations to FourSquare – it’s another free marketing tool, she said.

Turning to the city’s website, Mortson told commissioners that the parks and recreation page is one of the most visited pages on the site. There will be changes to the page in the coming weeks and months, she said, to help people use the site more easily. Staff is also working with the state of Michigan on a new mobile application – the MI Camping and Recreation Locator. Now, people can use the application to search for information about state parks, she said. Ann Arbor will be the first city in the state to have its information loaded on that application, so that people can search for Ann Arbor parks information, too.

Some marketing materials for parks and recreation include QR codes, Mortson said – a marking similar to a bar code, which can be read by smart phones. The code is used to direct people to different websites for parks and recreation.

In addition to cost savings, social media and other online marketing is green, Mortson said – it saves paper.

Mortson said the city also advertises parks and recreation events and programs in traditional media, and showed several examples of ads that have run in the Ann Arbor Observer, Ann Arbor Chronicle, and other publications. Other venues for promoting parks and recreation include ads on buses and posters within city facilities.

Following Mortson’s presentation, Gwen Nystuen praised her efforts, saying the information showed that her marketing work is succeeding. Colin Smith, the city’s parks and recreation manager, noted that the programs are being well-run, and are being promoted exceedingly well. He gave the example of this summer’s day camps. In an extremely competitive area, two of the city’s four day camps were filled. Smith credited Mortson’s marketing efforts for helping achieve that level of participation.

Sustainability Project

Jamie Kidwell is working for the city on a sustainability project funded by a $95,000 grant the city received from the Home Depot Foundation. At the Nov. 15 meeting, she briefed commissioners on a Sept. 27, 2011 joint working session that involved four city commissions: park, planning, energy and environmental. The session focused on prioritizing existing goals for the city that touch on sustainability issues.

Sustainability work session at Cobblestone Farm

A Sept. 27, 2011 sustainability work session at Cobblestone Farm involved four city commissions: park, planning, energy and environmental.

By way of background, the concept of sustainability focuses on what’s called the triple bottom line: environmental quality, economic vitality, and social equity. The goal of the sustainability project for Ann Arbor is to review the city’s existing plans and organize them into a framework of goals, objectives and indicators that can guide future planning and policy. Other project goals include improving access to the city’s plans and to the sustainability components of each plan, and to incorporate the concept of sustainability into city planning and future city plans.

There’s an 18-month timeline for the project, which started earlier this year. For the first phase, Kidwell reviewed existing city plans – such as the downtown plan, the non-motorized transportation plan, the natural features master plan and others – and interviewed key city staff to determine which plans they use to guide their decision-making. Included in this project are 26 plans, and the second phase has involved organizing the goals for each plan. [.pdf of the list of 26 plans]

Kidwell and other city staff started to develop a framework for these plans, and to identify gaps that exist – goals that the city might want to pursue, but that aren’t laid out in existing plans.

At November’s regular PAC meeting, Kidwell characterized PAC as well-represented among the 26 commissioners at the three-hour sustainability session on Sept. 27. [Among the PAC members attending were Julie Grand, Tim Berla, Tim Doyle, Gwen Nystuen, Sam Offen, and John Lawter.]

Kidwell explained that the staff had identified four planning areas – climate & energy, community, land use & access, and natural systems. During the work session, commissioners met in breakout groups and started to prioritize the 226 goals that staff had pulled out from the city’s 26 planning documents and sorted into the four planning areas.

Kidwell provided a handout that listed the top goals identified at the work session in each planning area:

Climate & Energy

(1) Reduce community-wide greenhouse gas emissions 8% from 2000 levels by 2015.

(2) Commit to energy conservation measures and methods.

(3) Reduce greenhouse gas emissions in municipal operations 50% from 200 levels by 2015.

(4) Use 5% renewable energy community-wide by 2015.


(1) To encourage cooperation between the City educational institutions and between the City and Townships that surround Ann Arbor (Ann Arbor, Pittsfield and Scio) on development issues that affect each other.

(2) Provide job opportunities, raise the standard of living of county residents, promote a sense of place and realize a tax base sufficient to provide public services through a comprehensive set of public and private strategies to foster and attract emerging industries.

Land Use & Access

(1) Encourage dense land use and development patterns which draw people downtown and foster an active street life, contribute to its function as an urban residential neighborhood and support a sustainable transportation system

(2) Establish a network of greenways throughout the City that provide non-motorized connections between various land uses, such as neighborhoods, commercial and employment centers, downtown and the University of Michigan, and that help retain the shape and continuity of natural features, especially along stream corridors, between parks and through new neighborhoods. The network also should extend to greenways located on adjacent township and County properties.

Natural Systems

(1) To protect and restore woodlands, landmark trees, steep slopes, endangered species habitats, prairies and savannahs, the Huron River, creeks and native flora and fauna from the impacts of development.

(2) To improve air quality to protect the health and welfare of the public

(3) Develop, complete and regularly update watershed plans for the City’s tributary waterways to improve water quality and to restore and preserve, waterways, banks, wetlands, floodplains, wildlife habits, native species and natural areas. Plans should include techniques to dramatically reduce the volume and speed of storm water runoff, increase water directed to infiltrate soil, and reduce the volume of toxics and pollutants reaching waterways.

(4) To protect, preserve and restore the natural resources of Washtenaw County through a comprehensive approach to water management and preservation of our natural features.

The 226 goals had been an exhaustive list, Kidwell said, with overlapping goals on a range of topics. The priority goals identified at the working session are a starting point, she said, providing feedback as the staff continues to refine what goals will fit into a sustainability framework.

Among the next steps, Kidwell said, will be to form a joint committee with representatives from each of the four commissions, to continue work on this project. There will also be a lecture series starting in January featuring issues in the four planning areas. Those lectures will be free and open to the public. At the same time, work will continue on developing a sustainability action plan, tying goals to measurable targets, Kidwell said.

Julie Grand, PAC’s chair, reported that she and Karen Levin will serve on the joint committee, representing PAC.

Parking Lot Improvements

Park planner Amy Kuras and Liz Rolla, a city engineer who primarily works on road resurfacing and reconstruction projects, talked about two parking lot improvement projects – at Riverside Park and Veterans Memorial Park.

Kuras said the projects represent a collaboration between the parks and public services units. At Riverside, the current parking lot is frequently under water, so Kuras was planning to address that issue as well as make other changes at the park. [For details, see Chronicle coverage: "Work Planned at Ann Arbor's Riverside Park"]

Sketch of proposed changes to Riverside Park

Sketch of proposed changes to Riverside Park. (Links to larger image)

Canal Street, a city street runs next to the park, also needs repair, so Kuras approached the public services staff to coordinate their work. The parking lot will be moved to a different part of the park – out of the floodplain – and Canal Street will be repaved.

Tim Berla noted that the path at Riverside, running next to the Huron River, is also frequently under water. Will the project address that too? Short of creating an elevated boardwalk, Kuras said, there’s nothing they could do to prevent flooding, given the path’s proximity to the river.

The second project involves the repaving of Dexter Avenue, which runs past Veterans Memorial Park. The road repaving needs to address stormwater issues, while the parks staff is concerned about the park’s path and parking lot, which are falling apart, Kuras said.

Rolla said the road will be reconstructed from Maple to Jackson. Typically, the requirement to capture stormwater runoff is handled through underground oversized pipes and swirl concentrators. But since the road runs past the park, the staff is looking at handling runoff with a bioswale in the park, which would include native plantings. There are federal dollars to pay for stormwater improvements, which will cover about 80% of the project’s cost, Rolla said.

Kuras said benefits include rebuilding the path that runs along Dexter Avenue, and reducing the parking lot’s footprint, though the number of parking spaces will remain unchanged. It’s a better environmental solution, she said, because of the bioswale.

Colin Smith, the city’s parks and recreation manager, said it’s good timing, since the city plans to renovate the softball fields there in 2012. The field renovation will likely start in mid-August, after the softball leagues finish their season.

Gwen Nystuen asked whether the parking lot would be paved with a pervious surface. No, Rolla replied. It’s too wet in that area for pervious pavement. Instead, the lot will be graded so that runoff will drain into the bioswale.

Karen Levin asked whether the park would be closed during this project. The section off of Dexter Avenue will probably be closed for some period, Kuras said, but the ice rink and pool – with an entrance off of Jackson Road – won’t be affected. Rolla added that the Dexter Avenue project will likely run from April through November, but they’ll leave it up to the contractor to decide when to do the parking lot and bioswale part of the project.

Site of proposed bioswale at Veterans Memorial Park

Aerial view of the site for the proposed bioswale at Veterans Memorial Park. The road at the top is Dexter Avenue. (Image links to larger file.)

John Lawter asked whether the bioswale will have standing water. There might be some minimal amount of standing water as the plants take hold, Rolla said, but the bioswale will be designed so that water will infiltrate. It’s similar to the bioswale at Buhr Park, she said. There will also be outlets leading to the city’s conventional storm sewer system, she added, in the event of a major rain.

Tim Doyle asked how much maintenance will be required in the bioswale. Rolla replied that the city will have an agreement with the contractor, who will provide maintenance in the area for three years. After that, the plantings should be established and it will be treated as a wet meadow by the city’s natural area preservation program. Smith noted that currently, the area proposed for a bioswale is included in the park’s mowing cycles. That maintenance would eventually be eliminated.

Julie Grand wondered what will happen if balls get hit into the bioswale – how are they retrieved? Smith said it’s a rare day when any balls are hit into the area proposed for the bioswale. Nor is it an area that’s typically used for team warm-ups. “It is really pretty much a dead space,” he said.

Grand also noted that the new parking lot will be closer to the playing fields. Is there more potential for balls to hit the cars? Rolla said it’s proposed to be moved only slightly closer to the fields. Kuras added that the location was discussed at length, and indicated that there’s little concern about the change.

Ruthven Nature Area

Lara Treemore Spears of the city’s natural area preservation (NAP) program updated commissioners on a wetland mitigation sediment removal project at the Ruthven Nature Area. The project involves removing sediment from Millers Creek, which flows through Ruthven, and repairing stream bank erosion that occurred when the creek bypassed its channel because of a sediment dam.

Like many streams in urban areas, Spears said, Millers Creek is surrounded by impervious surfaces. That creates runoff and sediment flowing into the creek, and over the years, has caused the creek to completely change its course.

The city risks losing some of its infrastructure along Huron River Drive and Geddes Road, Spears said – specifically, there’s the risk of damage to an undersized 24‐inch culvert under Geddes, which was not designed to receive the full volume of Millers Creek and could result in road flooding. Removing the sediment would redirect stormwater flow to a former open channel running through the wetlands at Ruthven, and into a larger 60-inch culvert under Geddes. It’s not an area that’s designated as a county drain, she noted, so it doesn’t fall under the purview of the county water resources commissioner’s office.

It’s best to remove the sediment when the ground is frozen, Spears said, so the work will likely begin in January. It will require some clearing, she said, but not nearly as much as has been done along Washtenaw Avenue for the county’s Mallets Creek drain project. The stream bank will be shored up with rock and restored with topsoil, mulch blanket, and native plant seed.

The city has submitted an application for a permit from the Michigan Dept. of Environmental Quality to do the work, and is awaiting review.

The ultimate goal, Spears said, is to reduce erosion. The city’s capital improvements plan (CIP) includes a sediment study of Millers Creek, to see if better long-term solutions can be found for preventing erosion.

Gwen Nystuen noted that there are a lot of  invasive species in Ruthven. She also wondered if the city had any plans to put in more trails through the nature area. There’s a trail with an entrance off of Geddes Road. But Spears noted that for a path off of Huron Parkway, after the first 325 feet it gets quite wet. There is one high quality area – a glacial kame, a hill created by glacial deposits. But most of the runoff flows straight south through a buckthorn thicket, she said – buckthorn is considered an invasive.

Tim Berla asked for Spears to give her best guess as to how long it would be before they’d have to repeat this work. Spears acknowledged that the problem comes from upstream, in an area that the city doesn’t control, and that erosion is aggravated by the surrounding impervious surfaces of roads and other development. Berla asked if there are any additional measures that can be taken, like adding underground swirl concentrators – devices designed to remove suspended solids from stormwater prior to reintroducing it into the city’s stormwater system. Spears said a long-term sediment study of the creek would look at those kinds of potential solutions.

Manager’s Report

Colin Smith, the city’s parks and recreation manager, updated commissioners on a range of items, starting with plans to renovate the city’s softball fields at Veterans Memorial Park, West Park, Southeast Area Park and Allmendinger Park. It’s analogous to the work already done at the soccer fields, he said. The idea is to bring the fields up to an acceptable level of play. Staff will be presenting a budget for the project to PAC at its December meeting. Smith and other staff had held a public meeting on the project earlier this month, which was attended primarily by managers of various leagues that use the fields. Smith reported that they seemed happy to see the project get underway.

Manager’s Report: Argo Bypass

Smith also noted that earlier in the month he had gone canoeing to test the new Argo Dam bypass, even though it had been snowing at the time. The design team is still tweaking the series of pools that make up the channel, and Smith described the stretch as a “bit sportier” than he had expected. It’s exciting to see that project come together, he said. Smith reported that the city council would be voting on a proposed change of scope to the project, which PAC had recommended at its August meeting.

View of Argo Dam bypass, facing west

View facing west of the first two pools in the Argo Dam bypass. The concrete pass-through at the far end will be replaced by a new, larger entrance.

The change will add a new entrance to the waterway from Argo Pond to the Huron River. The modification to the project is linked to an offer from DTE to pay for a whitewater section that’s part of the overall project, which freed up city funds for a new entrance from Argo Pond into the bypass. DTE is being required by the state to complete environmental remediation on its nearby property, which prompted its request that the city hold off on the part of the project that runs along the river.

Smith said the city’s agreement with DTE stipulates that the energy firm will hire the same consultant who designed the bypass – Gary Lacy – to design the whitewater features. TSP Environmental, which is building the bypass, will build the new entrance. [The city council subsequently voted to approve the change of scope at its Nov. 21 meeting.]

Tim Doyle wondered whether the change of scope will delay other aspects of the project. Only the whitewater features, which will be located in the river, will be delayed, Smith said. The bypass and new entry will move forward. It will likely be at least another year before the whitewater features are added, he said.

Manager’s Report: Update on Skatepark, Gallup Livery Grants

Smith reported that two state grant applications made by the city of Ann Arbor – $300,000 for the proposed Ann Arbor skatepark at Veterans Memorial Park, and $300,000 for improvements at the Gallup Park canoe livery – ranked in the top 12 out of 100 applications statewide for funding from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund. Smith told PAC members that he received the application scores in the mail earlier in the day.

The skatepark application ranked 12th out of the 100 applications, based on a scoring system used to evaluate the grants. The Gallup Park application ranked 2nd. Smith also reported that a $300,000 grant application for Rutherford Pool in Ypsilanti had ranked 11th in the scoring system. The scoring is an indication of the likelihood that these grants will be awarded, but that announcement won’t be made until Dec. 7, Smith said. It’s also unknown how much money will be awarded this year from the trust fund. He told commissioners that the top 12 grant applications total $2.7 million. There’s a cap of $300,000 per project.

At its March 15, 2011 meeting, PAC had voted to recommend supporting the grant applications. The city council made a similar vote of support on March 21. The council’s resolution of support prioritized the skatepark project over the Gallup renovations – based on the opportunity to leverage $400,000 of matching funds from the Washtenaw County parks and recreation commission.

NAP Volunteers Honored

Toward the beginning of the Nov. 15 meeting, Dave Borneman, manager of the city’s natural area preservation program, introduced two volunteers – Sarah Newman and Drew Lathin – who had been honored in October by the city council as NAP Volunteers of the Year. Newman was recognized for work in the Miller Nature Area and Furstenberg Nature Area. Lathin was honored for work in the Miller Nature Area, as well as for volunteering for NAP’s burn crew and its frog and toad surveys. Borneman read the proclamations that had been given to the two volunteers at the Oct. 26 council meeting, and PAC gave them a round of applause.

Newman thanked commissioners, as well as the staff of NAP, for all their work. She described Furstenberg and Miller as areas that are at the opposite ends of the spectrum. Furstenberg is a gem in the parks system, located along the Huron River and constantly maintained by NAP. Miller, on the other hand, is a large but relatively unknown neighborhood park on the west side that’s full of invasive species.

Her time most recently has been spent at Miller, and her role has been to encourage neighbors to get involved, she said, including work with kids in Peace Neighborhood Center‘s summer day camp, helping them to learn about what a nature area is and to help preserve the trails. “It’s a privilege and pleasure to work with the dedicated, intelligent and super hard-working group that Dave heads,” Newman said.

Drew Lathin, Dave Borneman, Sarah Newman

Dave Borneman, center, head of the city's natural area preservation program, introduced two NAP Volunteers of the year: Drew Lathin and Sarah Newman.

Lathin said it was an honor to be honored, but that he and Newman wouldn’t have gotten much done in Miller Nature Area without the hundreds of hours that other volunteers worked. They’ve had close to 1,000 volunteer hours there since they started working on about a one-acre section of the park.

He said his work at Miller started one winter day when he was walking through and saw all the invasive honeysuckle and buckthorn there. In a moment of insanity, he said, he decided to do something about it. Borneman directed him to Jason Frenzel, who was NAP’s volunteer coordinator at the time. Lathin said he’s happy he has mental health benefits as part of his insurance, because he thinks they’re called for. He praised NAP staff under Borneman’s leadership, saying they aren’t typical government employees – they’re very committed to what they’re doing, and they do great work. Lathin said he’s just the tip of the iceberg, in terms of the volunteers who work for NAP.

Present: Tim Berla, Doug Chapman, Tim Doyle, Julie Grand, Karen Levin, Gwen Nystuen, John Lawter, councilmember Mike Anglin (ex-officio). Also Colin Smith, city parks manager.

Absent: David Barrett, Sam Offen, councilmember Christopher Taylor (ex-officio).

Next meeting: PAC’s meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2011 begins at 4 p.m. in the city hall second-floor council chambers, 301 E. Huron St., Ann Arbor. [confirm date]

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Ann Arbor Park Commission Checks Budget Sat, 20 Nov 2010 16:15:02 +0000 Mary Morgan Ann Arbor park advisory commission meeting (Nov. 16, 2010): Budget issues were highlighted during Tuesday’s meeting, with a quarterly financial update from staff leading to a broader discussion about how much general fund money is used to subsidize parks operations.

Judy and Manfred Schmidt

Judy and Manfred Schmidt were honored at the Nov. 16 park advisory commission for their volunteer work with the city's natural area preservation program. (Photo by the writer.)

Parks manager Colin Smith reported that the first four months of this fiscal year – from July 1 through Oct. 31 – are off to a good start. Year-to-date revenues of $918,091 represent an increase over the same period last year, when revenues were $793,783. Expenses for that period are down from $1.23 million last year to $1.07 million this year.

Commissioner Tim Berla asked for clarification about how much support parks is getting from the city’s general fund, and Smith said he’d prepare a report on that issue for PAC’s December meeting. General fund support for parks is important to track, Berla indicated, because it reflects a promise that city council made prior to passage of a parks millage in 2006: That the total general fund subsidy for parks wouldn’t be diminished as a percentage of the overall general fund. The issue also ties into which part of the city budget will be used to pay for dam maintenance.

During an update on the $1.168 million Argo Dam bypass project – which PAC had recommended at its Oct. 19 meeting, and which the city council approved on Monday – Berla said he’d like to have a discussion about how to get city funding for a skatepark as well. As a result of that request, PAC will likely have a work session in December or January that focuses more broadly on prioritizing capital projects, including a skatepark. Other potential projects mentioned by commissioner Gwen Nystuen include the Allen Creek Greenway, another dog park, and increased connectivity for the park system’s trails and pathways.

Commissioners also got an update about the two proposals submitted for Huron Hills Golf Course, and heard from parks planner Amy Kuras on the status of capital improvement projects for the parks. Kuras reported that West Park is now open to the public following an extensive renovation, and that a draft of the Parks & Recreation Open Space (PROS) plan will be distributed soon for public feedback, pending a city council vote authorizing that action.

At the start of Tuesday’s meeting, two long-time volunteers – Judy and Manfred Schmidt – were honored as volunteers of the year for the city’s natural area preservation program. The Schmidts were specifically commended for their decades-long advocacy and stewardship of the Scarlett-Mitchell Nature Area, a 25-acre park adjacent to Scarlett and Mitchell schools and Mitchell-Scarlett Woods. During his comments, Manfred Schmidt proposed a whimsical solution to the city’s budget struggles, a plan that involves the amount of buckthorn he’s cut down over the years.

Huron Hills Golf Course RFP

This fall, the city issued a request for proposals (RFP), seeking ways to “maximize the recreational golf opportunities” at Huron Hills Golf Course. The 18-hole, 116-acre golf course is located on the city’s east side and is split by Huron Parkway, with seven holes on the north and 11 holes to the south. It dates back to 1922, when it was designed by the golf architect Thomas Bendelow. In 1949, the University of Michigan deeded the lower nine holes of Huron Hills Golf Club to the city – plus $10,000 – in exchange for Felch Park. The city bought an adjacent 57.5 acres in 1951.

Huron Hills: Public Commentary

Nancy Kaplan spoke on behalf of Ann Arbor for Parkland Preservation (A2P2), saying they were against loopholes in city ordinances that allowed the dismantling of parkland. Citizens don’t expect city ordinances to be looked at for their loopholes, she said, and it is disappointing that this approach is being taken. People expect that parkland will be protected, she said, and she hopes that PAC will help in that effort. She said she knew that finances are a major consideration, and on that she had two points.

Kaplan noted that a Ward 2 city councilmember had stated that on a cash basis, Huron Hills essentially breaks even. Secondly, since fiscal 2008, revenues municipal service charges for the golf enterprise fund have increased 58% . Finally, Kaplan pointed out that A2P2 and PAC shared the same goal: “We want to protect our parkland.” They don’t want to cut trees, or construct a building or huge parking lot, or destroy the vista. She said she hoped PAC would help them keep Huron Hills “public, open and free for all of us to enjoy.”

Huron Hills: Staff Report, Discussion

The topic of Huron Hills came up during the meeting in two contexts: During the quarterly financial report, and as part of the parks and rec manager’s update from Colin Smith.

During the quarterly financial update, Smith noted that revenues from Huron Hills had improved so far this year, compared to the previous fiscal year. Last year at this point, the course had about $145,000 in revenues – that compares to about $179,000 so far this year. They’re projecting revenues by the end of the fiscal year to exceed budget by as much as $35,000. Greens fees and cart rental revenues are up, and expenses are in line with last year, Smith said. “So Huron’s off to a good start.” [.pdf of Huron Hills financial statement]

During his manager’s report, Smith noted that the city had received two responses to its request for proposals (RFP): One from Miles of Golf, and one from Ann Arbor Golf. [See Chronicle coverage: "Two Huron Hills Golf Proposals Submitted"]

He alluded to emails that commissioners received over the weekend, and said that prior to the RFP being issued, it had been reviewed by the city attorney’s office. The proposals will be reviewed by the city attorney’s staff as well, he said.

Smith was referring to a five-page letter sent to the mayor and city council by attorney Susan Morrison, on behalf of Ann Arbor for Parkland Preservation. The letter urged the city to reject the Miles of Golf proposal, saying that it does not comply with city zoning ordinances and the RFP requirements, among other things. [.pdf of letter]

Smith said that a selection committee would be meeting later this week to review the proposals. If they decide to hold interviews for either of the proposals, those interviews are tentatively scheduled for Dec. 3.

Later in the meeting, PAC chair Julie Grand noted that she’ll be serving on the selection committee, and that they’re committed to a transparent, honest process. She said she understands that feelings of skepticism are out there – she pointed to the fact that the proposals were posted online soon after they were received, as an example of the city’s desire to make this process transparent.

The selection committee could choose to interview one, both or neither proposal, she said. They’ll make a recommendation to the city’s golf advisory task force, which in turn will make a recommendation to PAC. PAC could hold a public hearing, likely in December or January, and make its own recommendation to council. The city council would have the final decision.

The selection committee consists of the following: Grand; Smith; Doug Kelly, the city’s director of golf; Ward 2 city councilmember Stephen Rapundalo; former city councilmember Mike Reid; Ed Walsh, a member of the city’s golf advisory task force; and Sumedh Bahl, the city’s community services area administrator, whose responsibilities include overseeing the parks and rec operations.

Tim Doyle asked what the potential outcomes might be – he recalled there was the possibility of negotiations taking place at some point. He asked whether that would happen prior to being voted on by city council. Smith said it would depend on the proposal, but that if a proposal goes to the city council, the council vote would likely authorize the city staff to negotiate for a final contract.

Tim Berla asked what basic criteria would be used to evaluate the proposals. Was it based on finances, or making golfers happy, or something else? Smith said the scope of the RFP required continuing golf at Huron Hills – whether it would look the same as it does today would be up to the proposal, he said. The point is to enhance the golf experience, he said, but finances are also a piece of it, as is the proposer’s prior golf experience. Responses to the RFP include a separate sealed envelope that contains the financial proposal. That envelope won’t be opened until they move to the interview process, Smith said.

Argo Dam

Issues related to Argo came up at several different points in Tuesday’s meeting, beginning with public commentary.

Argo: Public Commentary

Vicki Dischler told commissioners that she lives near the canoe livery on Argo Pond, and that she was there to talk about the use of megaphones by rowing crew teams rowing on Argo. Many teams are now using a new technology that don’t use megaphones and are not as loud, but there are still times when some rowers use megaphones that over-amplify the directions that they shout, she said. She requested that megaphones be disallowed by the city, calling them a nuisance for residents and users of the park. The noise occurs six days a week during the fall and spring, she noted. Dischler said she’s written about the issue to city council, PAC and crew coaches, but her last email got no response. Speaking at public commentary was the only other way she knew to get the issue addressed, she said.

Argo: Staff Report

In his manager’s report, Colin Smith noted that the Ann Arbor city council had approved the $1.168 million Argo Dam bypass project that PAC had recommended at its October meeting. The project entails reconstructing the headrace into a series of connected pools that would flow from Argo Pond down to the river – eliminating the need to portage. The trail on the embankment would be widened and paved, making it more accessible for pedestrians and cyclists. In addition, a section of whitewater will be created on the Huron River, slightly upstream from the headrace channel’s exit into the river.

Smith said there was a great deal of discussion among councilmembers about how to fund the project. Originally, $300,000 from the city’s drinking water fund – money that had previously been earmarked for toe drain repair on the dam’s embankment – was included in the bypass project’s funding. Smith said a friendly amendment to the proposal stated that if staff is able to come up with other funding sources or cost savings, then that $300,000 won’t be used for the bypass. The main source of funding – as much as $683,000 – is from the city’s Parks Rehabilitation & Development millage. An additional $195,000 is available from the same millage, which has been earmarked for improvement of river parks.

Staff is very excited about the project, Smith said, and planned to have a meeting later in the week to talk about next steps.

Argo: Commissioner Discussion

Tim Berla asked for clarification about the source for part of the funding – was it the drinking water fund, or the stormwater fund? Christopher Taylor, an ex-officio PAC member who represents Ward 3 on city council, said the source was the treated water fund. [The treated water fund is commonly referred to as the drinking water fund.] Berla clarified that council is seeking legal guidance about the use of the water fund to pay for projects related to Argo Dam. Taylor reported that the city council, at its Monday meeting, had directed the city administrator to remove the dams from the treated water fund for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, 2011.

Taylor later said the expectation is that more expenses related to dams will be picked up by the parks budget.

Gwen Nystuen said she’s been worried about the legal status of parks, and about how protected parkland actually is. She wondered whether some of the land around the city’s dams, as well as the land underneath the water, was considered parkland or public land. Are the dams themselves considered parkland? If not, should the parks system be paying for something that isn’t parkland?

Taylor said he didn’t know who owns the land under the river, nor does he know whether the water’s surface would be considered parkland. But for the purpose of a community conversation, he said, the river has been described as a bluefield – in recognition of its recreational use, similar to a greenfield.

Sam Offen asked Smith whether they could get a legal opinion on the issue from the city attorney. The question about land ownership and designation could apply to all of the waterways that run through the city, he said. Smith said he’d figure out the best way to pursue it. The discussion would be relevant in developing the budget, he added, as part of a broader discussion over how costs are allocated and what funds are appropriate to use for certain projects.

Berla weighed in, saying the only time he could imagine the distinction between parkland and public land being relevant is if the city wanted to sell a dam without getting voter approval. [A charter amendment requires the city to seek voter approval before selling parkland.] He said it’s unlikely the city would do that, so it seemed like an academic point to him. But it is relevant to identify where the funding will come from to maintain the dams, he said – the city could still decide to use parks funds for the maintenance of public lands. The point is that if a dam is used for recreational purposes, then it makes sense for funds to come out of the parks budget, he said.

Smith noted that the designation of the dams as parkland or public land might impact how you could use certain funds. For example, the parks millage is used for maintenance of recreational facilities. If you view the dam as a parks and rec facility or infrastructure that provides a recreational amenity, then would it have to also be a park in order to use the parks millage for it?

Mike Anglin said he didn’t thinks the parks system could afford to take care of everything associated with the river. “It’s just an awesome responsibility,” he said.

At the end of the discussion, Nystuen complimented PAC chair Julie Grand for representing PAC’s views to city council about the Argo bypass project. [Grand had spoken about the project at Monday's council meeting during public commentary time.] Nystuen praised Smith for his commentary at the council meeting, too. She said it was nice to have a project on which there was unanimity.

Grand said PAC’s unanimous vote reflected their enthusiasm, and the project’s obvious benefits, adding, “It’s nice to get a win, right?”

Argo: What about the Skatepark?

Under the agenda item for new business, Tim Berla said that following last month’s meeting and PAC’s approval of the Argo bypass project, he’d received a number of emails regarding the city’s role in a skatepark that’s being developed by a community group. At the October meeting, Berla had mentioned the skatepark himself. From The Chronicle’s report:

Berla then said he was concerned about the sustainability of financing for this [bypass] project. For years, they’ve been using the drinking water fund to pay for dam maintenance, he said, and he was personally uncomfortable with that, because Argo has nothing to do with drinking water. The project would require a lot of money to maintain over the next 20 years, and he doesn’t see where that money can come from except from the parks and recreation budget. He said that spending $683,000 from the millage fund was entirely legit – but it would be equally legit to spend it on other projects, like a skatepark.

On Tuesday, Berla said the emails he received caused him to wonder in what ways the city can move forward to find some capital funding for a skatepark. He noted that the county has already pledged some money. He said he understands that the city is contributing the site at Veterans Memorial Park, and that its memorandum of intent with skatepark organizers is important. But the skatepark seems like a really good amenity for the community, and he’d like to have a discussion about helping fund it.

Parks staff has a well-organized capital projects planning system, he noted, in which projects are listed and prioritized. But then there emerge other projects outside of that list, and funding is made available for them, he observed – like the $1.168 million for the Argo Dam bypass. Berla said he’d like to find a way to find funding for the skatepark in the capital improvements plan (CIP).

Gwen Nystuen suggested holding a work session on the topic. She noted that the PROS plan includes these kinds of priorities too. There are several potential projects like the skatepark, she said, including the Allen Creek Greenway, another dog park, and the city’s ball fields. Nystuen said she’d also like to see more work on connecting the city parks’ trails and pathways.

Smith noted that the draft of the PROS plan will be distributed in early December, and that it might be possible to hold a work session related to capital projects in that context. He said a robust discussion should include a look at all needs in the parks system, not just one project. From the staff’s perspective, he added, it’s important to renovate, reconstruct and improve the system’s existing infrastructure as well – that should be part of the discussion, too. He suggested the timing for a work session might be in December or January.

First-Quarter Budget Update

Sam Offen, chair of PAC’s finance committee, began the presentation by noting that the report covers the period from July 1 through Oct. 31, 2010 – much of the summer recreational activities are reflected in the report, he said, and the numbers look good. He also pointed out that due to a change in the accounting system, some large payments to parks and rec – including a fund transfer, and two parking payments from the University of Michigan – aren’t recorded yet. All in all, he said, he was pleased with the year so far.

Parks manager Colin Smith highlighted several items in the budget. He noted that the year has started off well, which will make next April, May and June – the start of the next recreational season, and the end of the fiscal year – less nerve-wracking. Revenues for facility rentals – including Cobblestone Farm and other venues – were well ahead of last year, at $157,095 so far this year, compared to $91,990 for the same period in FY 2010. Veterans Pool has seen revenues increase from $40,685 year-to-date last year, to $61,281 this year. Most of that increase is due to an increase in the number of swimmers using the pool, Smith said.

Canoe liveries are also doing well, he said, as is the senior center, which at one point the city had considered closing. Revenues to-date last year for the senior center were $18,299, compared to $31,713 this year. Expenses are about $10,o00 lower than the previous year, as more volunteers are being enlisted. “So they’re moving in the right direction,” he said.

Overall, Smith said he didn’t see anything in the budget that concerned him, and that he was pleased with where things stood after the first four months of the fiscal year.

First-Quarter Budget Update: Commissioner Comments, Questions

Commissioners’ questions covered a wide range of issues. David Barrett noted that the city had purchased a lot of equipment for the golf courses, and he wondered if that had been successful. Smith replied that the condition of the courses has improved, and the feedback from golfers has been positive – more people are coming to the courses, he said, and returning more than once. Barrett said that at one point there had been concerns about underground pipes and pumping – Smith reported that they had purchased a variable-speed pump, and everything is working well.

Tim Berla wanted to know how much the city’s general fund is subsidizing parks operations. Smith said the revenue budget for FY 2011 is $2.4 million, and expenditures are expected to be $3.6 million, for a net subsidy of $1.2 million – that’s the general fund amount for parks and rec services. That figure doesn’t include the field operations budget.

Berla observed that there used to be one number for the parks department. When the city reorganized, it split parks and rec into two areas – community services, and public services. Smith acknowledged that this was the case, noting that the public services unit, via the field operations staff, runs maintenance for all of the parks that aren’t “facilities within the fence.” Parks and rec covers the facilities and programs.

The $1.2 million net from the general fund is for the community services portion of parks and rec. Berla said he was interested in identifying the total amount the city’s general fund is contributing to parks. Smith said he thought the number for public services was about $2.9 million net. He said he’d provide a report on the issue next month. Gwen Nystuen said she’d also like to see the number for the city’s general fund contributions to parks going back several years.

Berla then clarified that the golf enterprise fund – consisting of operations at Huron Hills and Leslie Park golf courses – was receiving a $519,000 general fund subsidy for FY 2011. Berla asked why the figure is reported as a combined number for both courses, not separated out. Smith said it was likely because it’s a transfer from one fund to another – it’s not activity-specific. He said in the future they could report how much money from the general fund was going to each course.

Tim Doyle said it is his understanding that the two courses shared some expenses, but Smith said there’s little overlap. Each course has its own staff, equipment and materials.

Matt Warba, the city’s supervisor of field operations, reviewed the field operations portion of the budget for PAC, focusing on questions that he’d been asked by Offen and Nystuen at the finance committee meeting.

A line item for trunkline maintenance referred to state funding – $13,796 so far this year – that was provided to the city for maintenance of traffic islands and similar road-related property. He explained that the $41,114 in expenses for snow and ice control reflects equipment repairs. The line item for athletic fields and game courts showed a dramatic change – from $430,892 in FY 2009 to $14,927 in FY 2010. That reflects funding spent on major renovations at Fuller and Olson fields, Warba said.

The line item expense for debt service – nearly $296,000 each year – is for the field operations’ share of Wheeler Service Center, where that unit is housed. It’s a 25-year payout, Warba said, ending in 2031.

Nystuen asked about the line item expense for non-parks mowing, budgeted for $41,151 this year. Warba said they pay a contractor to mow traffic islands that aren’t covered by funds from the state. The islands are scattered all over the city, and it’s more efficient to pay a contractor to handle it, he said. It’s paid for out of the city’s general fund. Nystuen clarified that the street maintenance funds don’t pay for any of it.

Berla asked whether the general fund money for non-parks mowing would count as part of the general fund subsidy for parks. This kind of thing will become more of an issue as they talk about things like maintaining dams, and whether or not that expense comes out of the parks budget, he said.

Smith said that the field operations unit provides maintenance for all of the city’s infrastructure. He said it would be possible to prepare a report that broke out the general fund allocations to parks and non-parks operations, and that he’d bring it to next month’s meeting.

Berla then asked the two city councilmembers on PAC – Mike Anglin and Christopher Taylor – whether those figures were meaningful for council. That is, was there a time when the council said, “Oh, let’s give a little more money to parks” – and whether it would be meaningful that funding from the parks operations was not being used for non-parks work. Christopher Taylor replied, “I think we would tend not to get that granular.” Taylor added they would tend to look at funding for parks and field operations, but not at whether field operations staff were mowing in parks or some other public land.

Berla then clarified that it’s not really the case that the council discusses how much of a general fund subsidy the parks should receive – they’re not really paying attention to that number, he observed. He said the reason he raised the issue is that several years ago, there was a specific promise related to the parks millage, when council pledged that the total general fund subsidy wouldn’t be diminished as a percentage of the overall general fund, if the millage passed.

By way of background, in 2006 Ann Arbor voters were asked to approve a millage that 1) combined two previous millages for park maintenance and capital improvements, and 2) increased the revenue. In October of that year prior to the election, the city council passed a non-binding resolution stating that funding for parks would increase or decrease by the same proportion that the general fund grows or shrinks. Here’s the resolved clause from that resolution – items 4-6 pertain to this issue:

RESOLVED, That City Council amend the adopted policy guidance for the Park Maintenance and Capital Improvements Millage to read as follows:

1. Adoption of the Funding Distribution Guidelines as stipulated in Attachment A (on file in the City Clerk’s Office);

2. Annual allocation for maintenance is to be between 60% and 80% and capital improvements is to be between 20% and 40% with a total annual allocation being 100%;

3. The Natural Area Preservation Program budget be established at a minimum of $700,000.00 for first year of the millage budget and that it receive a minimum 3% annual increase for each of the subsequent five years of the millage to enhance the stewardship of increased acreage of natural park areas;

4. If future reductions are necessary in the City’s general fund budget, during any of the six years of this millage, beginning with Fiscal Year 2007-2008, the general fund budget supporting the parks and recreation system for that year will be reduced by a percentage no greater than the average percentage reduction of the total City general fund budget;

5. If future increases occur in the City’s general fund budget during any of the six years of this millage, beginning with Fiscal Year 2007-2008, the general fund budget supporting the parks and recreation system for that year will be increased at the same rate as the average percentage increase of the total City general fund budget;

6. City Council will verify these expenditures by examining the audit statement for each year.

7. The millage will not be subject to a municipal service charge;

8. The millage may be subject to appropriate information technology and fleet charges;

9. If the millage is not renewed after the six years, the Natural Area Preservation Program will receive the same percentage of any remaining fund balance from the Park Maintenance and Capital Improvements Millage as was in the approved budgeted in the sixth year of the millage; and

RESOLVED, That if the millage is adopted, the City Administrator be directed to develop an annual millage budget for review and recommendation by the Park Advisory Commission with final adoption by City Council consistent with this Resolution.

The resolution was meant to assure voters that general fund support for parks wouldn’t be diminished as a result of additional millage funding.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Taylor said that in that context, there could be direction from council to the city administrator to “observe that percentage.”

Capital Improvements Update

Parks planner Amy Kuras gave an update about capital improvement projects throughout the parks system. Here’s a summary:

  • Buhr Park: Kuras reported that the steel structure of the ice rink will be cleaned and painted – the project has been delayed until the spring of 2011. Replacement of a walk from Easy Street to the entry road is completed. Neighborhood volunteers will be planting a new stormwater basin with native vegetation in the spring.
  • Cobblestone Farm Barn: The asphalt walk leading from the parking lot to the barn was repaved.
  • Farmers Market: Electrical upgrades – providing more outlets for vendors and replacing existing outlets with GFI outlets – are almost finished.
  • Gallup Park: A conceptual design for renovating the approach to the livery is completed, as is an expanded patio and barrier-free docks.
  • Veterans Memorial Park Ice Arena: Parking lot reconstruction is completed, as is reconstruction of the tennis courts – aside from color coating and striping, which will be done in the spring. A pedestrian walk at Dexter and Maple avenues has been replaced. Design is underway for a solar shade structure on the pool deck, funded by a grant from the city’s energy office.
  • West Park: Kuras reported that the park’s major renovation is almost finished – the park is now open, and most of the construction fencing has been removed. Work included stormwater improvements, pathway construction, seat walls at the bandshell, basketball court replacement, parking lot renovations and landscaping. Additional landscaping will occur in the spring, she said. Public art sculptures have been installed on the seat wall near the bandshell. [See Chronicle coverage: "Mural Project OK'd, West Park Art Installed"] Stucco repair and painting of the band shell is finished, and the house on Chapin Street that was bought by the city earlier this year will be demolished soon. The tennis court will be rebuilt in the spring, she said, and work is underway to prepare construction drawings for that.

In addition, Kuras gave commissioners a report about the update of the city’s Parks & Recreation Open Space (PROS) plan. A draft master plan is available for PAC to review, she said. At its Nov. 3 meeting, the Ann Arbor planning commission approved distribution of the draft plan. The draft will be available for public review in December, following city council approval of the plan’s distribution. Both the planning commission and city council will need to approve the final draft – those votes will likely occur in March, Kuras said.

Several commissioners, as well as parks manager Colin Smith, praised Kuras for her efforts, citing specifically the major projects of the West Park renovation and PROS plan update. Julie Grand noted that in the past, the city had paid a consultant to work on the PROS plan update – Kuras saved the city money by taking on the project herself, she said.

Rec & Ed, Ball Field Update

During his report as liaison for the recreation advisory commission, Tim Berla said that the group had received an update on finances from Sara Aeschbach, director of the Ann Arbor Rec & Ed program, which is part of the Ann Arbor Public Schools. He reported that because of the economy, the program’s expenses exceeded revenues, and that if it continues, they’ll have to make cuts or raise fees. Last year, Rec & Ed gave out $400,000 worth of scholarships to families in need. He noted that years ago, the city previously contributed to those scholarships, though it doesn’t anymore. If Rec & Ed has to tighten their belts, the scholarships would likely be decreased, he said. Overall, the financial situation there is “not a crisis, it’s just a concern,” he said. Moving the program into its new offices at Pioneer High School is expected to help on the expense side, since they will no longer be paying rent, he said.

Berla also reported that he and Dave Barrett had met with several staff members from the Ann Arbor Public Schools, including Aeschbach and Randy Trent – the school district’s executive director of physical properties – to talk about the condition of ball fields at the schools. Barrett has taken the lead in assessing the conditions of the city’s ball fields – he presented a report at PAC’s Sept. 21, 2010 meeting. [.pdf file of Barrett's ballpark report]

From Barrett’s written report:

From the general to the specific, the larger canvas of their state is that many fields appear to be worn down and dog eared. Some simply need some work around the edges; others need fundamental renovation. Some fields need dirt and a refashioning of the drainage from the fields so that every rainstorm does not stop play for days; others need new backstops. Some need the outfields to be fertilized so the grass in the outfield grows evenly versus in clumps; others simply need more frequent mowing. Some need decent rubbers on the mound so the pitchers have something decent to push off of when they throw the ball; others have infields that are so hard that sliding would be inadvisable if not dangerous.

The interrelationship between the City, the Ann Arbor Public Schools, and Rec & Ed is a complex tapestry that was woven together organically over the years when monies were more plentiful – but as the budgetary stresses touched all of these organizations, there was a need to clarify the exact maintenance responsibilities of each. Recently, these responsibilities have been formalized in an agreement between all parties. Whether this has helped or hindered the maintenance of the existing fields remains to be seen. That said, this on-going dialogue should aid in figuring out how to best use limited resources.

At Tuesday’s PAC meeting, Berla explained what they’d learned from meeting with AAPS staff. The district’s basic model in approaching capital improvements at the schools is to get a list of prioritized projects from each building’s principal, he said. Not surprisingly, projects like improving the ball diamonds are at the bottom of those lists, he noted.

Barrett said they focused their discussion on middle school ball fields, which are generally in the worst shape. He said the AAPS staff had been very open to the conversation, but had started with an all-or-nothing attitude. That is, they felt they either needed enough funding to do all the desired rehab, or it wasn’t worth doing. Barrett said he tried to convince them that even a small investment could make a big difference – about $4,000 spent at Forsythe made a dramatic improvement. “Let’s not let perfection be the enemy of the good,” he said. Aeschbach had indicated there was the possibility of retooling the capital improvements process, Barrett said, adding that he left the meeting feeling encouraged.

NAP Volunteers of the Year

Jason Frenzel, volunteer and outreach coordinator for the city’s natural area preservation and Adopt-A-Park programs, was on hand to introduce this year’s NAP Volunteers of the Year – Judy and Manfred Schmidt.

Manfred Schmidt, Jason Frenzel

Manfred Schmidt, left, talks with Jason Frenzel prior to the start of the Nov. 16 park advisory commission meeting. Frenzel is volunteer and outreach coordinator for the city's natural area preservation program. Manfred and Judy Schmidt were honored as NAP volunteers of the year.

Some years, the award goes to someone who has made an amazing contribution during the year, Frenzel said. Other times, it’s for lifetime achievement – and that’s the case for the Schmidts, he said, who’ve been working on natural area preservation “a few decades longer than our program has been around.”

Frenzel read a mayoral proclamation that had been given to the Schmidts at a recent volunteer award event. Their work has focused on the Scarlett-Mitchell Nature Area, a 25-acre park adjacent to Scarlett and Mitchell schools and Mitchell-Scarlett Woods. Judy Schmidt said they’ve been working in that area for about 40 years, and she joked that if they’d known it would be that long, she’s not sure they would have started.

Manfred Schmidt recalled how it took about 35-40 years and a lot of lobbying to get the city to buy the land that’s now the Scarlett-Mitchell Nature Area. He joked about his tenacity, saying that his attitude had been, “I will outlive you all!” He also said he had a solution for the city’s budget challenges: If he got a quarter for every buckthorn he cut, “I think there would be no problem with your budget.”

Commissioners gave the Schmidts a round of applause, and thanked them for their work over the years. Julie Grand said that since Manfred Schmidt was going to outlive them all, she hoped he would continue his work as well.

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

Next meeting: Tuesday, Dec. 21 at 4 p.m. in the studios of Community Television Network (CTN), 2805 S. Industrial Hwy., Ann Arbor. [confirm date]

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Park Commission OKs Fee Increases, Budget Fri, 23 Apr 2010 15:22:20 +0000 Mary Morgan Ann Arbor Park Advisory Commission meeting (April 20, 2010): At Tuesday’s meeting, park commissioners gave their blessing to proposed fee increases and the parks budget for FY 2011, recommending that city council approve both items.

Karen Levin, Gwen Nystuen, David Barrett

Gwen Nystuen, center, passes out copies of a draft resolution to Karen Levin and David Barrett, her colleagues on the Ann Arbor park advisory commission. Nystuen is proposing that PAC form a subcommittee to review the impact of the Fuller Road Station. (Photos by the writer)

The proposed budget would keep all of the city’s 157 parks open, but would cut back maintenance – mowing and snow removal – on 17 parks. The budget also proposes keeping open Mack Pool and the Ann Arbor Senior Center, which had previously been slated to close. A handful of supporters for those two groups who attended Tuesday’s meeting applauded when commissioners approved the budget.

Only one commissioner – Gwen Nystuen – voted against recommending the budget, citing objections to a proposed rollback of funds for the city’s Natural Area Preservation (NAP) program.

Nystuen also floated a proposal to form a subcommittee that would review the impact of the Fuller Road Station. That project, which is jointly funded by the city and the University of Michigan, would initially include a large parking structure and bus station on city-owned land that’s designated as parkland. Nystuen has been vocal about her concerns over setting a precedent with this project, and frustrated that PAC hasn’t taken a more active role on the issue.

Commissioners also got a brief update on the status of an RFP being drafted by city staff for the possible privatization of the Huron Hills Golf Course, and heard from an organizer of the Ann Arbor skatepark during public commentary, who invited commissioners to an April 25 design workshop.

Recommendations for Fee Increases Approved

Commissioners unanimously passed a resolution recommending that city council approve a raft of fee increases within the parks system. Colin Smith, the city’s parks and recreation manager, described this as a standard part of the budget process. The 19 pages of proposed fee changes were provided in the PAC board packet and are part of the budget material being considered by city council. The information includes comparative data on fees charged by other municipalities. [.pdf file of proposed fee increases]

If approved by council, hourly rental rates at the city’s ice arenas will be raised, as will season passes at outdoor pools and at Fuller Pool for the master’s swim program. Smith noted that rental fees at Veterans ice arena haven’t been raised since 2005, or at Buhr since 2007. Both arenas have received capital improvements in the past few years. Rates at Buhr for multiple prime-time hourly rentals would increase from $150 to $165 for residents. Veterans rates would jump from $186 to $205. By comparison, the Ann Arbor Ice Cube charges $275 an hour.

Outdoor pool passes haven’t been raised since 2006. Adult residents will be charged $140 for a season pass, up from $125. Youth and senior resident rates would increase from $100 to $110.

For canoe rentals, the parks staff is proposing a new $10 third-person fee, which Smith described as an industry standard. The new fee would not be charged to children 12 and under.

Several new fees, as well as some double-digit fee increases, are recommended for Mack Pool and the Ann Arbor Senior Center. Smith noted that these fees were approved by the task forces that have been working to save the pool and senior center, which had previously been slated to close. The senior center, for example, will start charging an annual membership fee – $25 for individuals, $35 for couples.

Commissioner Gwen Nystuen thanked Smith and the parks staff, saying they had achieved a balance between charging fees that reflect the current financial needs, but not so high that it would be a burden and prevent people from using the parks facilities. “We appreciate the effort,” she said.

Sam Offen, who chairs PAC’s finance committee, agreed. He said the fees were fair, very competitive and appropriate, since they hadn’t been raised in several years.

Commissioners unanimously approved the new rates. City council will make a final decision on the changes, as part of its approval of the FY 2011 budget. If approved, the new rates would take affect at various points throughout the year – Smith said they didn’t want to change rates mid-season.

Fiscal 2011 Parks Budget

Colin Smith, who manages the city’s parks and recreation unit, gave a presentation to commissioners outlining highlights of the budget for fiscal year 2011, which begins July 1. He noted that this will be the second year of a two-year financial plan, which was adopted in May 2009. Typically there would be only minor adjustments in the second year, he said. “That is basically not the case this year.”

Colin Smith, Sam Offen

At left: Colin Smith, the city's parks and recreation manager, talks with Sam Offen, a member of the Ann Arbor park advisory commission who chairs its finance committee.

The budget process hasn’t really stopped, because of uncertain economic conditions, Smith said. Last year, the city administration revised its FY 2010 budget forecast to reflect a $3.3 million revenue decrease. For FY 2011, an additional $5.4 million revenue drop is projected for the general fund.

To address the FY 2010 decrease, the parks system – as well as other units funded by the city’s general fund – cut its budget by 3%. Measures included extending the mowing cycle from 14 to 19 days, reducing the amount of hand-trimming, and shifting the expense of stump removal and tree planting to the city’s stormwater fund. The parks unit also realized $28,000 in energy savings during the year, Smith said, and the golf courses outperformed their forecast, requiring less of a subsidy from the general fund.

For the coming fiscal year, another 7.5% budget cut is needed, Smith said. For parks and recreation, that’s an additional $262,000 cut; for parks forestry and operations, it’s a $272,000 cut.

To reach those goals, Smith outlined several proposed cuts:

  • $55,000 in staff costs, by leaving vacancies unfilled and reallocating some staff time to other units;
  • $40,000 by using a Community Development Block Grant to pay part of the $145,000 contract with the Community Action Network to run the Bryant Community Center;
  • $35,000 from reductions in computers and software applications;
  • $15,000 from cuts to the seasonal employee budget;
  • $14,000 from shifting advertising from print to the web;
  • $12,500 from buying fewer canoes and kayaks;
  • $7,000 in energy savings.

Those cuts will be coupled with revenue increases in several areas, including rink rental ($24,000), outdoor swimming passes ($10,000), third-person canoe fees ($25,000), athletic field rates ($25,000) among other areas. Additional parking revenue is expected from leasing spaces to the University of Michigan at Riverside Park ($10,000) and from charging for parking at Allmendinger and Frisinger parks on football Saturdays ($25,000).

Mack Pool and the Ann Arbor Senior Center are still expected to operate at a loss – $21,000 and $31,000, respectively – but those are lower amounts than originally projected, Smith said. The budget also projects a $28,000 drop in revenue from instructional skating, he said.

A job that’s currently vacant for a park planner will be retooled as a volunteer outreach coordinator, Smith said. And as the staff prioritizes capital improvements, they’ll look for projects that will cuts costs, such as ones that increase energy efficiency, for example.

Additional changes will be made to the parks forestry and operations unit:

  • $112,000 saved by extending the mowing cycle from 19 to 23 days;
  • $142,000 from shifting the cost of stump removal and tree planning to the stormwater fund;
  • $52,000 from eliminating maintenance (except for right-of-way) in 15 parks..

[Later in the meeting, Matt Warba, the city's supervisor of field operations, clarified that 17 parks would be experiencing some level of reduced maintenance. They are: Ellsworth, Foxfire East, Fuller Triangle, Garden Homes, George Washington Park, Glazier Way, Manchester Park, Pittsview Park, Rose White Park, South University Park, Bader Park, Stone School Park, Berhshire Berkshire Creek Nature Area, Devonshire Park, Dicken Park, Douglas Park, Eisenhower Park.]

In addition, the proposal calls for eliminating a 3% annual automatic increase in the budget for the Natural Area Preservation program, which is funded by a parks maintenance and capital improvements millage passed in 2006. That would yield $81,000, which would be used instead to pay for hand trimming in the parks. Because the 3% increase is mandated by a city council ordinance, the change would require council action, Smith said.

Public Commentary: Parks Budget

At the start of the meeting, one of the two speakers during public commentary focused on the budget. Ed Sketch, a member of the task force formed to help save Mack Pool, said he was pleased with the work that the task force had done to help reduce the deficit. He welcomed the fact that funding remained in the budget for Mack Pool, and urged the commission to support that aspect of the proposed FY 2011 budget.

Commissioner Discussion: Mowing & Maintenance

Gwen Nystuen asked for more clarification about park maintenance. Matt Warba, the city’s supervisor of field operations, said the weather would affect the impact of the mowing changes. If it’s a dry season, the changes won’t be as noticeable. But if it’s warm and wet, causing the grass to grow quickly, people will likely notice the difference. Their intention is to mow all the areas they can, he said. During the winter, they also put wood chips around the trees, to reduce the impact of cutbacks in hand trimming. If there are playground areas, those will be maintained, Warba said.

For the parks in which maintenance will be eliminated, Warba said there isn’t any recreational programming planned. And they’ll keep the right-of-way clear and won’t let weeds grow so high as to violate the city’s weed ordinance, he said. If they need to make adjustments during the season, they will, he said.

In a follow-up email to The Chronicle, Warba wrote that nine of the 17 parks will have some level of snow removal on paths reduced, and most will have a reduction in mowing. Birkshire Creek Nature Area will have a reduction in snow removal only, because the parks staff does not currently mow there.

David Barrett asked whether the city was protected legally, if someone slipped and fell because snow hadn’t been removed from the park path. Warba said they would post notices indicating that the paths won’t be maintained – they already do this in Mary Beth Doyle Park, he said. If they plow, Warba said they feel obligated to keep the paths ice-free. But if the area is clearly posted with signs informing the public that the paths won’t be plowed, the city should be covered. Christopher Taylor clarified with Warba that this would affect only internal park paths, not sidewalks around the perimeter.

Commissioner Discussion: Natural Area Preservation

Scott Rosencrans asked how the cuts to the Natural Area Preservation program (NAP) would affect its work. When Tim Berla commented that it wasn’t really a cut – it was simply not an increase – Sam Offen clarified that it was, in fact, a cut of more than 3%. The proposal called for rolling back the 3% increases NAP has received each year since the parks maintenance and capital improvements millage was passed, so it’s actually a 12% budget reduction, he said, taking them back to their 2007 budget level of about $695,000

The impact includes a 44% reduction in the budget for temporary staffing. Warba noted that rather than using Manpower for temp staff, NAP will be hiring temporary employees directly – that means that they won’t be paying Manpower’s administrative markup, so they’ll be getting more bang for their buck, he said. Because of that, Warba estimated the reduction in actual temp staff levels would be more like 30%.

Mike Anglin

Mike Anglin, an ex officio member of the park advisory commission who also represents Ward 5 on city council, talks with supporters of Mack Pool before the start of PAC's Tuesday meeting.

Gwen Nystuen said it was important to note that revenue from the millage was declining, due to lower property taxes from the struggling economy. Her concern was about taking funds from NAP and shifting them to operations – when the millage was passed, this was something that city officials had vowed not to do.

The shift is predicated on two actions that must be taken by city council, Offen said. First, they’ll need to revoke the automatic 3% budget increase to NAP, he said. They’ll also need to approve the use of millage funds to be used for operations – namely, hand trimming in the parks. The city council has been informed that it will need to take those actions, he said.

Smith said that when the millage was passed, the expectation was that the city would be acquiring more land for its natural areas program. The 3% increase for NAP was tied to that, he said, to cover costs tied to caring for the additional land. [Land acquisition is funded by through the open space and parkland preservation millage, which also funds the city's greenbelt program.] Smith noted that out of the roughly 1,200 acres of city-owned natural areas purchased so far, only 38 acres have been purchased with millage funds are natural areas. That’s less than 3% annually, he said, so it’s fair to say that rolling back the budget shouldn’t dramatically affect NAP’s ability to maintain the city’s natural areas.

Nystuen said that it would affect NAP’s ability to do some innovative things that they might like to do.

Later in the meeting, Tim Berla brought up the fact that several years ago, residents had been dissatisfied with upkeep of the parks system. A big selling point of the 2006 millage had been to get the city back up to an acceptable level. He wondered whether they were going to slide back, because of the cuts.

Smith said that one thing they heard from residents when they proposed the 2006 millage was that people wanted the city to take care of existing parks. The city has done a good job of that, he said, upgrading several facilities over the years. The fact that they’ll be keeping all the parks and recreation facilities open, despite budget cuts, speaks well for that commitment, he said. Smith also pointed to Mack Pool and the Ann Arbor Senior Center, which are being kept open as well.

The most visible thing that people will notice is longer grass, he said, and some people won’t like it. In general, the situation with the parks boiled down to this, he said: “We can still play in them – it really is, in some ways, that simple.”

Commissioner Discussion: Misc. Comments and Questions

David Barrett wondered how all of these changes would be communicated to the public – assuming that everyone wasn’t going to be watching the Community Television Network broadcast in the wee hours of the morning, he joked.

Colin Smith said that after the city council approves the budget, he planned to put information up on the city’s website and post notices at parks facilities. He also will send out an email through the city’s email alert system, which reaches about 35,000 people, he said.

Gwen Nystuen asked whether Smith felt comfortable with the amount of revenue the city was getting from the University of Michigan for leasing parking spaces at Riverside Park. He said that getting $12,000 annually for 10 spaces was market rate, and that the spots were used at off-peak hours.

Karen Levin asked for clarification about the projected decrease in revenue from skating instruction. The budget projection for FY 2010 had been too aggressive, Smith said. In general, enrollment is declining. It’s still a large program, he said, and staff will work to get the numbers back up. But they felt that to reflect reality, they needed to adjust the revenue forecast downward.

Nystuen commented that since Smith stepped into the manager’s job, budget forecasting has improved dramatically.

Tim Berla raised the issue of the new volunteer coordinator position. It’s important to monitor it over time and set specific goals and expectations, he said. Smith clarified that it would be a full-time position funded by the millage, not the general fund. It would replace a currently unfilled park planner job. Next week he and deputy parks and recreation manager Jeff Straw will meet with Jason Frenzel, who handles volunteer outreach for the Natural Area Preservation program, to create the job description and talk about how to measure success. NAP does things like track volunteer hours and opportunities for educational interaction with volunteers, Smith said. He cautioned that developing a volunteer program takes time.

Offen asked when they planned to fill the position. Smith said he couldn’t post the job until the city council approved the budget – they’re expected to vote on that in May. He said he wanted to make sure they found the right person for the job, which might lengthen the hiring process.

Berla also asked whether the closing of the headrace at Argo Dam had been factored in to projected revenues for the Argo Livery. At this point, it’s not possible to take the river trip between Argo and Gallup parks, he noted.

Smith said the operating budget assumes that the headrace will be open again, but that they also have a contingency fund to make up for a shortfall if it doesn’t reopen. Berla jokingly referred to it as a slush fund – Smith said it’s called a contingency.

In a follow-up phone call with The Chronicle, Smith said the contingency of $66,086 is an estimate of about half of the projected revenues for Argo’s spring 2011 season, through June 30, 2011. It could be tapped if the headrace remains closed, either because of repairs to the Argo Dam or if the city doesn’t receive permission from the state to remove the stop log, which is currently in place.

A long-running dispute between the city and the state over the stability of Argo Dam resulted in the headrace being closed last year. The headrace is a passage that’s used by canoers and kayakers to bypass the dam as they travel on the Huron River.

Commissioner Discussion: Proposed Amendment and Vote

Gwen Nystuen said she supported everything except the rollback of NAP funding, because it breaks with the resolution that city council passed regarding the allocation of millage funds.

Offen objected, saying that if they kept the increase for NAP, they’d have to go back and change the budget, which used those funds to pay for hand trimming.

Christopher Taylor, an ex officio PAC member who represents Ward 3 on city council, said that PAC was simply giving advice to council – it wasn’t PAC’s budget to alter, he said. By removing support for the NAP rollback, he said, PAC would simply be removing its imprimatur from that portion of the budget. Responding to a question from David Barrett, Taylor said that council had not yet taken action regarding a change to NAP funding.

Tim Berla asked Nystuen to be more specific about her objections. She said the budget would be shifting funds away from NAP to be used for general maintenance, and she didn’t think it was worth making that sacrifice. It also breaks with what voters were told when they approved the millage. The council resolutions – which were passed in August 2006, before the November vote – were meant to assure voters that the millage funds would be used in certain ways, she said.

Berla said they couldn’t have anticipated how things would change, such as the amount of land they’d acquire and the downturn in the economy.

Scott Rosencrans asked how the parks would be impacted, if the $81,000 from the millage wasn’t reallocated for hand trimming. Matt Warba, the city’s supervisor of field operations, said there’d be no hand trimming in the parks, other than in response to the city’s weed ordinance. It would have a “monuental” visual impact, he said.

There was some discussion over how best to make the amendment that Nystuen suggested. Doug Chapman proposed adding a new resolved clause that would remove PAC’s support of the changes to NAP.

Saying he was a supporter of NAP’s work, Rosencrans said he wouldn’t support the amendment. At a time when other parts of parks and recreation are taking a hit, NAP needs to do its share. He noted that the staff at NAP had made the suggestions about how to cut their budget, and he thought it was a fair adjustment.

The amendment failed to pass, with only Nystuen voting for it.

Mike Anglin, a Ward 5 councilmember and ex officio member of PAC, asked when the parks millage would be up for renewal. Smith said there was another 2.5 years remaining on the six-year millage.

Outcome: The resolution to recommend the parks budget to city council passed, with dissent from Gwen Nystuen.

New Leadership for PAC

Tuesday was the last meeting for Scott Rosencrans, the commission’s chair, who has decided not to seek a second term on PAC, citing personal and professional reasons. He said he’s been honored to serve, and that the group had accomplished “a lot that we can be proud of.”

John Lawter, Scott Rosencrans, Christopher Taylor

From left: John Lawter, Scott Rosencrans and Christopher Taylor. Lawter is vice chair of the park advisory commission. Tuesday was the last meeting for Rosencrans, who has been PAC's chair, but is stepping down from the commission as his term ends. Taylor is an ex officio member of PAC and represents Ward 3 on city council.

Gwen Nystuen nominated Julie Grand – the only commissioner who was absent on Tuesday, due to illness. Nystuen and several others assured Rosencrans that Grand had been consulted and had agreed to serve.

No others were nominated. Even so, the commissioners voted by secret ballot, writing their votes on slips of paper. Colin Smith, the city’s parks and recreation manager, read the ballots, noting that only seven had been cast – Rosencrans had forgotten to weigh in. After Rosencrans handed over his vote, Smith revealed that Grand had been elected unanimously. John Lawter remains vice chair.

Rosencrans clarified that PAC’s bylaws require officer elections in September, so elections for all officers will be held again at that time.

Fuller Road Station

Toward the end of the meeting, Gwen Nystuen proposed a resolution to form a subcommittee that would focus on Fuller Road Station, a joint city of Ann Arbor/University of Michigan project. 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 proposed that commissioners read her resolution and then discuss it at an upcoming meeting of PAC’s land acquisition committee (LAC), on which all park commissioners serve. LAC next meets on May 4 from 4-6 p.m. in the second floor city council workroom. The meetings are open to the public, but are not televised.

Rosencrans deferred action to PAC’s next chair, saying “Commissioner Grand, if you’re watching at home, that’ll be one of your first orders of business.”

Huron Hills Golf Course RFP

At the end of the meeting, commissioner Sam Offen asked for an update on the RFP (request for proposals) that the city plans to issue for the Huron Hills Golf Course. The commission had received its most comprehensive update at its Feb. 23, 2010 meeting. From Chronicle coverage of that meeting:

Commissioner Julie Grand gave a report on the city’s golf advisory task force, on which she serves. The group met the previous week, she said, and had a heated discussion about the possible privatization of Huron Hills Golf Course. At this point, it’s just an idea, she said – no RFPs (requests for proposals) have been issued. [The RFP was discussed at city council meetings 0n Jan. 25 and Feb.8, 2010, and city administrator Roger Fraser indicated at the Febrary meeting that city staff will work on development of such an RFP.]

The task force has been directed to look for ways to get additional funding for Huron Hills, Grand said, and they hope to get clarification on a number of questions, such as how the city’s municipal service charges – fees paid by every department for shared services, such as information technology and legal services – factor into the budget.

Colin Smith added that the city has been approached by a private vendor interested in alternative uses for Huron Hills – splitting the course into a driving range and learning center on one side of Huron River Parkway, and a 9-hole course on the other. City staff will develop an RFP over the summer, he said, which will be put out for bids. There will then be a review process of the proposals submitted, including a look at proposed financial returns. “It is not a foregone conclusion, that’s for sure,” he said.

The RFP will likely be broad, Smith said, to allow for more creative proposals. Before being put out to bid, it would be reviewed by the task force as well as PAC. He likened it to the Library Lot process, in which the city issued an RFP for development on top of an underground parking structure. There would likely be a committee formed to review responses to the Huron Hills RFP, Smith said, and a lot of opportunity for people to know what’s going on.

On Tuesday, Smith told commissioners that city staff were still working on a draft of the RFP. When they had finished, it would be reviewed first by the city’s golf advisory task force to take advantage of their expertise and insight, he said. Then it would be brought to PAC for review and input, probably in June. The RFP would likely be issued this summer – Smith said he expected it would entail a process similar to the one being used for the Library Lot RFP, in which a committee is convened to review responses to the RFP.

Public Commentary: Skatepark

Trever Staples, a lead organizer for the effort to build a skatepark in Ann Arbor, gave an update to commissioners during public commentary at Tuesday’s meeting. He noted that the organizing group was now called Friends of the Ann Arbor Skatepark. They’ll be holding the second of two design workshops on Sunday, April 25. The event, which is open to the public, starts at 4 p.m. at Slauson Middle School, 1019 W. Washington.

Staples said PAC had been instrumental in moving the project forward, noting that the skatepark organizers had signed a memo of intent with the city to use land at Veterans Memorial Park almost two years ago. They’ve been meeting with park planner Amy Kuras and Colin Smith, the city’s parks and recreation manager, to develop an RFP (request for proposals) for the skatepark’s design.

They’ve also been in fundraising mode, Staples said. He noted that last month, Washtenaw County’s parks and recreation commission had approved up to $400,000 in matching funds for the project. [See Chronicle coverage: "County Offers $400K Match for Skatepark"] Staples said city councilmember Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) was instrumental in putting together a letter of support for the county, signed by councilmembers. The skatepark group will hold its next fundraiser on May 15 at the Vault of Midnight, 219 S. Main St.

Staples thanked commissioners for their ongoing support. “We’ll come back with a more formal presentation soon,” he said.

Present: David Barrett, Tim Berla, Doug Chapman, John Lawter, Karen Levin, Gwen Nystuen, Sam Offen, Scott Rosencrans, Mike Anglin (ex-officio), Christopher Taylor (ex-officio)

Absent: Julie Grand

Next meeting: Tuesday, May 18 at 4 p.m. in the Washtenaw County administration building boardroom, 220 N. Main St. [confirm date]

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“It Looks Like a Great Burn Day” Tue, 06 Apr 2010 23:21:45 +0000 Mary Morgan Like many articles in The Chronicle, this one begins at a public meeting. But unlike any others, it ends in a partially burned woods at Argo Nature Area, where a crew clad in yellow fire-retardant suits kicked up puffs of smoke as they strode through the ashes of their work.

Burn crew gear

Gear for a member of the city's Natural Area Preservation burn crew, on the stoop of the Leslie Science & Nature Center. (Photos by the writer.)

On the path from one to the other, we learned about sling psychrometers, drip torches, council rakes and what kind of leaves burn best. Our guides were the staff and volunteers of Ann Arbor’s Natural Area Preservation program, who will be wrapping up the spring burn season later this month.

We first got an overview of the city’s controlled burn program from NAP’s manager, Dave Borneman, who made a presentation about it at the February meeting of the Ann Arbor park advisory commission. He described the ecological rationale behind a burn, citing the benefits it brings by controlling invasive species and rejuvenating the land.

As it turns out, Borneman was also the “burn boss” when we tagged along on a burn last Friday – the first one done by NAP in Argo’s lowland area.

But the day for the crew began at their offices in the Leslie Science & Nature Center building, on Traver Road – so that’s where we’ll start, too.

Will Today Be a Burn Day?

Because of consistently dry weather – a trend that’s been disrupted this week – this spring has been a remarkably good one for controlled burns. The last week of March and the early days of April leading into Easter weekend were shaping up to continue the streak – on April 1, dozens of spectators showed up for the popular annual burn at the Buhr Park Children’s Wet Meadow, which went well.

By Friday, though, as the NAP staff gathered for their morning meeting, the National Weather Service had issued a “red flag warning” for southeast Michigan – an indicator of “critical fire weather conditions.” And because dry, hot weather made the spread of fire a risk, the state’s Dept. of Natural Resources and Environment stopped issuing burn permits.

NAP has a blanket permit for its controlled burns from Ann Arbor’s fire marshal, covering the spring and fall seasons. Even so, the fire marshal gets to make the call on any given day – checking in with the fire marshal is part of NAP’s protocol before doing a controlled burn. On Friday, there was a period of uncertainty, as the burn crew waited to hear back about whether they’d be allowed to proceed.

Uncertainty is part of the drill. Even if the weather forecast looks solid, conditions might change overnight. So the burn/no burn decision is made in the morning, following a series of checkpoints made by staff.

On Friday, Tina Roselle walked The Chronicle through some of those checks from NAP’s second floor offices in Dr. Leslie’s old homestead, where the Leslie Science & Nature Center is also located.

Weather charts in a binder

A weather kit, including this chart to help calculate on-site humidity, gets packed for the burn crew to take out into the field.

Roselle is coordinator of the city’s Adopt-a-Park program, but during burn season she often spends the morning doing prep work for the crew. Next to her desk is a large plastic tub, which she is filling with supplies:

  • Extra water bottles.
  • Medical forms and sign-in sheets for volunteers.
  • A plastic bag crammed with Oskri bars – they’re good because they’re vegan, organic, gluten-free and edible by people who have food allergies, Roselle says. Other snacks are in the tub as well, including crackers and peanut butter creme cookies. (Roselle also walks across the office and pulls back a curtain to reveal shelves full of additional snacks – more fuel for the volunteers and staff.)
  • A red cloth pouch with several tools for checking the weather, including a Kestrel 3000 wind meter, a compass to identify wind direction, and a sling psychrometer to measure humidity on site.

Roselle also checks a range of weather conditions so that the crew can know what to expect out in the field. She calls a number at the Ann Arbor municipal airport – 734-668-7173 – that gives a recording of wind speed and direction, temperature and other conditions specific to the city. She prints out a report from the National Weather Service website for the Ann Arbor area – the site includes hourly forecasts for humidity, precipitation, wind gusts and other measures.

Wind speed and direction are important, as those indicate how the fire might burn, and how smoke from the burn might affect surrounding areas. Those conditions factor into the selection of the burn site on any given day.

Humidity is another factor, because it generally predicts the dryness of the oak leaf “litter” or grasses, which fuel the burns. Since humidity is typically lowest around midday, most of the burns begin at noon.

Part of Roselle’s job can’t be done until the burn crew emerges from their morning meeting, where they discuss which sites to tackle out of a master list that’s been compiled for the season. Depending on weather conditions, the number of people available and the size of the burn sites, up to six locations might be handled in a day. Typically, though, the crew usually tackles one or two larger sites.

On Friday, there was just one burn – at Argo. So Roselle pulls a “burn prescription” for that location. These extremely detailed reports are prepared for each potential site in advance by NAP staff, with some information to be completed on the morning of the burn. Essentially it’s a how-to sheet, listing the location of the site, how to get there, who owns it, where the nearest water source is, and who needs to be notified about the burn – including a list of contact information. It also includes burn objectives – in the case of Argo Nature Area, the main goal is to kill garlic mustard, an invasive plant species.

There are also details about smoke management, one of the more important elements of a burn in terms of potential impact on the surrounding community. A smoke management plan might look something like this, taken from a sample burn prescription for Cedar Bend Park:

1) Conduct burn when atmospheric conditions allow for maximum lifting, mixing and transportation.

2) Create burn breaks around dead snags, chimney trees, stumps, logs brush piles to prevent burning.

3) Attempt to have the burn and mop-up completed prior to rush hour traffic.

4) Make sure nothing is left smoldering when we leave the site.

5) Schedule burn during weekdays when fewer people on-site or in nearby homes.

[.pdf file of a sample burn prescription for Cedar Bend Park]

After getting the good-to-go signal for the day, Roselle makes calls to the contacts specified in the burn prescription. She also sends out a mass email to volunteers, giving details about when and where the day’s burn will occur. Media outlets get an email too, and word goes out over NAP’s Twitter and Facebook accounts. [To sign up for alerts about controlled burns or other NAP activities, email]

It takes at least an hour – usually more – to make all the contacts, Roselle says.

Pre-Burn Prep Work

Meanwhile, other NAP workers are getting together equipment and supplies for the day. On Friday, we found Steven Parrish in a basement workshop, sharpening tools. He nicked his finger on a pulaski, a combination axe and mattock. “I did a good job sharpening that,” he deadpans, sucking on the blood.

Steve Parrish sharpens a pulaski

Steven Parrish, a conservation worker with the city's Natural Area Preservation program, sharpens a pulaski that will be used in a controlled burn.

Shovels, picks, council rakes, chainsaws, two-way radios – all manner of tools and equipment are stacked in this basement storage area, where lockers for the crew are also located. The lockers are used to store each person’s burn crew suit, issued for the season – either a one-piece jumpsuit or pants and a jacket, made of heavy yellow fire-retardant material. In the same way that the brand name Kleenex has taken on a generic meaning, the suits are called Nomex – a brand name that’s commonly used to refer to any fire-retardant suit. (And unless they get particularly nasty, the suits are washed only at the end of the burn season.) Each crew member also has a yellow helmet with plexiglass visor – on the front, their name is written in large letters on yellow duct tape.

Part of the prep work includes making sure all the equipment is ready, Parrish says. In addition to sharpening tools, he’s already repaired the metal frame on a backpack that holds a metal water tank.

Most of the other half-dozen workers are elsewhere on the grounds. Some have gone to the nearby Leslie Park Golf Course to fill up the tank on the water truck. Others are loading a large red trailer – among its contents are several signs that will later be placed on roads around the area of a burn, to alert residents and drivers who might spot the smoke. The trailer also holds orange road cones, leaf blowers used to create a break around the perimeter of the burn, blue plastic tubs filled with fire-retardant suits in an assortment of sizes for volunteers, and a hodge-podge of tools.

Robb Johnston

Robb Johnston, a NAP conservation worker, loads canisters of fuel for the day's controlled burn.

Up the hill, Robb Johnston has driven a pickup truck to a storage shed and is hoisting five-gallon red and blue metal canisters of fuel into the truckbed. The crew uses fuel for its chainsaws and for pumps on the water trucks.

He’s also loaded 11 drip torches – smaller canisters with long nozzles that are carried by the burn crew and used to light the fires. The drip torches are filled with a cocktail of kerosene and gasoline in a four-to-one ratio – instructions for the mix are scrawled in marker on the inside of the shed. Johnston explains that kerosene makes for a sustained burn, mellowing out the more explosive gasoline. Explosiveness on a controlled burn is not good.

At the Burn Site: Getting Ready

By 11:30 a.m., a pickup truck with NAP’s distinctive red trailer is already parked in the lot near the entrance to the nature area. Laura Mueller has opened the trailer door and unloaded the blue plastic tubs with gear for volunteers, along with several of the water-tank backpacks and a tub of snacks.

In part because of the Good Friday holiday, there’s a fair amount of activity – kids playing across the road in Longshore Park, joggers, dog-walkers, fishermen, people driving in and unloading their canoes and kayaks. A couple of geese waddle along the shore, honking. Across the Huron River, an Amtrak train rolls by.

A sign is already posted at the head of the trail where you enter the woods, stating that the nature area is closed. Throughout the afternoon, this is routinely ignored – and that’s pretty typical, according to the burn crew. When working in the urban parks, it’s common for people to go through a burn site, and there’s not much the staff can do about it.

Contolled burn volunteers getting into their gear

Volunteers for the controlled burn get into their gear in the parking lot next to the Argo Nature Area.

Volunteers begin to arrive. The first is Gracie Holliday, an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. She’s been a NAP volunteer for other projects, but aside from the training that all volunteers must complete, this is her first burn. A petite woman, she roots through the tub marked “S” to find some gear that fits – sort of.

By noon, about a half-dozen other volunteers have arrived, coming by bike, motorcycle and car. They also gear up, though at least one man – Jim Hope, who’s also a firefighter – wears his own suit. In general, volunteers are asked to wear their own leather boots, but are provided everything else, including well-worn leather gloves and two-way radios that are clipped to the front of their jackets. They pass around a clipboard to sign in. Some have brought their own lunch, but others grab a snack from the tub provided by NAP. Amanda Nimke passes out clementines.

Dave Borneman shows up – he’s parked the burn trailer for his private business in a parking lot down the road. He’s the “burn boss” for the day, and consults with Lara Treemore-Spears, a NAP technician who’s also supervising the site. Other staff prepare the drip torches, fill water tanks, and help volunteers get into their gear. A couple of kayakers ask Mueller to take a photo of them before launching their craft into Argo Pond – she obliges.

Staff and volunteers in yellow fire suits stand in a circle

Staff and volunteers get briefed on the upcoming burn, standing in the parking lot at the Argo Nature Area.

About a dozen people – staff and volunteers – are in their full gear when Borneman asks everyone to huddle up. They form a circle, and make introductions. Borneman passes out maps of the area, and talks about conditions for the day – it’s dry, he says, with high temperatures and wind creating a greater chance for fires to start and spread, “which is why we’re not in a cattail field.” He clarifies that there’s not a burn ban in effect, and that the fire marshal has given the go-ahead for their work. Even so, Borneman says he wouldn’t be surprised to see a fire truck cruise by during the afternoon. “We’re going to avoid every opportunity for them to shut us down,” he says.

Borneman notes that two people from NAP’s staff will be driving around the neighborhood, monitoring smoke. Smoke monitoring will be especially important today, he says: Because of the holiday, more people will likely be at home and outside, and because the weather’s nice, homes in the area are more likely to have their windows open. He notes that the gray overcast sky works to their advantage, masking the visible signs of smoke so that residents won’t get concerned.

Borneman tells volunteers that they’ve never done a controlled burn in the lowland area of the Argo Nature Area, and he included a bit of a pep talk: “It’s going to be a great burn day!” He cautioned them to try to burn around the patches of trout lilies, bloodroot and other wildflowers they find. This is done by dousing the flowers with water just prior to the burn. It’s an effective strategy.

In wrapping up, Borneman urges the volunteers to make sure they drank plenty of water – everyone needed to carry a water bottle. When they return to the base to refill the water tanks on their backpacks, he said, be sure to grab something to eat as well. “Expect to be really hot and tired and sweaty,” he said.

They then quickly divy up tasks. Four volunteers are chosen to ignite the fires with drip torches – this seemed to be a coveted job, and volunteers were picked who hadn’t done any igniting recently, or in the case of Holliday, ever.

Parrish gives an on-site weather report, which would be updated every hour: 72 degrees, with relative humidity at 45% and wind from the south. Borneman does a radio check, making each person could receive and transmit clearly.

And with that, they flip down their visors and get to work.

A volunteer fills the water tank on his backpack

Volunteer Jim Hope fills the water tank on his backpack. The tank on the truck holds 300 gallons. The tank on the backpack holds four gallons – with a full water tank, each backpack weighs about 40 pounds.

Two burn crew members prepare drip torches

Burn crew members Laura Mueller and Robb Johnston prepare drip torches for the controlled burn.

Two kayakers get their photo taken

Two kayakers asked Laura Mueller to take a photo of them before launching into Argo Pond.

Dave Borneman

Amanda Nimke listens while Dave Borneman briefs the burn crew.

Two men in fire gear spray water on the Argo Pond boardwalk

Two volunteers in fire gear spray water on the Argo Pond boardwalk, prior to burning the surrounding brush.

A controlled burn at Argo Nature Area

A volunteer hoses down the boardwalk during a controlled burn at Argo Nature Area.

A controlled burn at the Argo Nature Area

Along the banks of Argo Pond, volunteer Gracie Holliday ignites some brush while NAP's Laura Mueller sprays water on the smoldering ashes.

Burn crew walks into the woods at Argo Nature Area

In a slight blur of smoke from small burns along the edge of Argo Pond, crew members enter the woods at Argo Nature Area.

Burning in the Argo Nature Area

Burning gets underway in the Argo Nature Area woods. The fire in some parts of the woods didn't burn well, in part because there aren't many oak trees in the area. Oak leaves have a high oil content – when dry, they burn well.

An Argo Nature Area hill after a controlled burn

An Argo Nature Area hill after a controlled burn.

Bloodroot survived the controlled burn

Bloodroot survived the controlled burn. The crew doused patches of wildflowers with water, to prevent them from burning.

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Concerns Voiced Over Fuller Road Station Tue, 23 Mar 2010 04:01:49 +0000 Mary Morgan Ann Arbor Park Advisory Commission meeting (March 16, 2010): Fuller Road Station was the focus of this month’s PAC meeting, including a presentation by Eli Cooper and others on the project’s team. Five people spoke on the topic during public commentary as well – all of them concerned about the proposed parking structure and transit center.

Greta Brunschwyler, Sam Offen, Jason Frenzel

From left: Greta Brunschwyler, the new executive director at the Leslie Science & Nature Center, talks with park advisory commissioner Sam Offen and Jason Frenzel, volunteer and outreach coordinator for the city's Natural Area Preservation program, prior to the March 16 PAC meeting. (Photo by the writer.)

Several commissioners had pointed questions for Cooper. Sam Offen pressed him on the issue of revenues, noting that when the parking structure is built, the university might have no need for the spaces it leases from the city on the opposite side of Fuller Road – resulting in a loss of about $38,000 per year to the city.

Also attending the meeting was Greta Brunschwyler, the new executive director at the Leslie Science and Nature Center, who started the job on March 4 and came to introduce herself to park commissioners and staff.

Leslie Science and Nature Center is where Jason Frenzel’s office is located. Frenzel, volunteer and outreach coordinator for the city’s Natural Area Preservation program, gave a brief presentation about volunteer opportunities.

Scott Rosencrans, PAC’s chair, wasn’t able to attend the meeting, which was led in his absence by vice chair John Lawter. Lawter announced that Rosencrans has decided not to seek reappointment to PAC when his term ends in mid-April. So not only will PAC need to elect a new chair, Lawter said, there will also be an opening on the commission.

Fuller Road Station

The park advisory commission had been briefed on the Fuller Road project at their September 2009 meeting –  at the time, it was called the Fuller Intermodal Transportation Station, or FITS. The presentation at this month’s PAC meeting gave a progress report on the project, and included more members of the design team.

The agenda item drew several speakers during the meeting’s time set aside for public commentary.

Fuller Road Station: Public Commentary

Former park advisory commissioner John Satarino urged the group, if they were given the chance, to vote no on the Fuller Road Station. He said that asking voters to weigh in on the project would be the “honorable thing to do.” It’s a precedent-setting decision, he said, and could impact the future of parkland on the Fuller Road site. The deal with the university is “awful,” he noted – at the least, the city’s parks system should get more out of it – the university probably wouldn’t bat an eye, Satarino said, if the city asked for $1 million. He cautioned that if the project moves ahead, it will break the bond between the city and its citizens – and that’s a relationship they don’t want to destroy.

Alice Ralph said the structure seemed designed  primarily to serve university employees, yet the city was paying about 20% of the costs. If the loss of parkland is perpetual, the least that the city can do is to ensure that they get perpetual compensation, rather than a lump sum payment. A trade in land would be another option, she said.

Barbara Bach noted that the name Fuller Road Station implied that it would include train and bus service, but this first phase is really a parking garage for the university’s hospital and employees. She questioned whether there has been an assessment of the market value of that land. She also noted that the parking structure was substantial and not easy to remove – its size would obliterate the cliff in that valley as a streetscape. The project would also entice more cars into the area, which Bach said she didn’t like. Additionally, Bach raised the concern about circumventing a vote on the sale of city parkland, saying she didn’t like the precedent it set.

Lisa Jevens described herself as a resident who uses the parks almost every day. Characterizing the Fuller Road Station as a transit center was a smokescreen that’s obscuring today’s financial realities, she said. It’s primarily a parking structure for university hospital employees, yet the city is being asked to pay millions of dollars for it – in return, getting the same number of spaces they have at the current surface lot. That just doesn’t make financial sense to most people, she said.

Jevens said she’d like the university to pay a lot more money for use of the site. The project goes against the city’s vision of increasing greenspace and reducing traffic. There’s also no money that’s been allocated to fund future train service, she noted. There shouldn’t be a rush to build the structure, Jevens said, but the rush is being created by the university, which is opening a new hospital next year with insufficient parking for it. She suggested that the university explore other parking options on its own property, like land on Wall Street or at the former Pfizer facility on Plymouth Road.

Peter Pollack spoke during both opportunities for public comment, at the beginning and end of the meeting. He noted that his office had been involved in designing the Fuller Road boulevard in the early and mid-1980s. It’s the only place in the city where you get a sense of being in the river valley. It’s a very difficult place to put a very active facility, he said. Though the Fuller Road Station concept plan has been approved, he acknowledged, there’s still time to rethink the design. He urged commissioners to consider a structure that would be long and low, stretching across the current two soccer fields to the east – rather than building the taller structure that’s being proposed. It can be designed to be part of the park, rather than an object that’s plopped into the space.

Pollack said that in some ways he felt like he was on a horse tilting at windmills. The current design team are “good folks,” he said, but there’s just one chance to design the facility at that location, and they should do it in the best way possible. He noted that he’d met with city staff in mid-September of 2009 – at that point, there had already been a decision to build on the current footprint, he said. The decision had been based on a large meeting between city and university officials, he said – a meeting that hadn’t been open to the public.

Fuller Road Station: Presentation

Much of the presentation to PAC repeated information given at a Feb. 10, 2010 public forum [Chronicle coverage: "Fleshing Out Fuller Road Station."] Eli Cooper, the city’s transportation program manager, described how the project team had been meeting with many different groups, including two public forums and a working session for the planning commission. Answers to questions from the Feb. 10 forum are posted on a website devoted to the project. There have been ample opportunities for public engagement, he said, and there will be more.

Cooper said the project’s emphasis is in the eye of the beholder. Though it’s frequently characterized as a parking structure by opponents, Cooper talked mostly about the other elements of the project, which would be built in later phases.

Fuller Road Station master plan

The master plan for Fuller Road Station, a joint project of the University of Michigan and the city of Ann Arbor. Phase 1 would consist primarily of a large parking structure. (Links to larger image.)

He showed commissioners the final concept plan for the project, which if built would include a train station for high-speed and commuter rail. The location next to the largest employer in the county – the University of Michigan health system – is one reason why the city has eyed it as a site to suggest for possibly relocating the Amtrak station, he said. Visitors to the city, coming to use the medical facility, also could use the station.

In addition to rail transit, the station is designed for bus transfers. One feature defining it as a transit center, not a parking garage, are the 17-foot-high ceilings on the first level, Cooper said – designed to accommodate buses. Another key element is a bike station, which could eventually include showers for bike commuters, a bike maintenance area and possibly a café. Cooper said he’s heard the bike station described as just an add-on, but he sees it as an exciting element, creating a trailhead for the county’s border-to-border trail, which runs through that area.

There is a substantial parking component, he said, with capacity for up to 1,600 spaces – though the first phase will build 900. City officials hope that commuter rail will be the preferred way to travel in the future, he said, and the master plan has been designed to reflect that possibility. Phase 1, however, is a much more modest project, he said. [In a presentation at the city council's Feb. 1, 2010 meeting, Carmine Polombo sought to lower expectations about the Detroit-Ann Arbor commuter rail project, making clear that early service towards the end of 2010 would be very limited – day trips and special events.]

There’s high demand for parking in this area, Cooper said, from both the university and from city park users. In addition, AATA and UM’s bus system will use the structure, and there will be an area with bike hoops and lockers.

Clearly, it’s a large structure, Cooper said. But relative to nearby buildings, it’s dwarfed, he said. They’ve also directed the design team to maintain a human scale, he added.

PAC members had submitted questions to Cooper in advance of their meeting, and he addressed many of them during his presentation.

  • Is this a transportation center or a parking structure? “I believe it’s a little of both,” Cooper said. It began as a transportation center, he said, then turned into a larger parking facility to meet the short-term need – while at the same time proving to potential partners, like the federal government, that the city is serious about the project for longer-term uses like commuter rail.
  • Why are additional rail facilities needed in Ann Arbor? Cooper said that Amtrak anticipates doubling its ridership in the next 25 years. That’s not including potential commuter or high-speed rail. Right now, the Ann Arbor station, located on Depot Street, has 75 long-term parking spots. Their current location won’t accommodate future growth, Cooper said. He noted that the Ann Arbor station is the second busiest one on the Chicago-Detroit route – only downtown Chicago is busier. The Fuller Road Station is also intended to be an alternative for driving to the Detroit Metro airport, Cooper said. And though the Fuller Road Station didn’t get chosen in the latest round of federal funding, the project was approved, he noted – the feds just ran out of money.
  • What transportation entities have expressed interest in the facility? Cooper cites the Michigan Dept. of Transportation, the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG), AATA, the University of Michigan and Greyhound as entities that are interested in the project. Greyhound, which currently has a station in downtown Ann Arbor on West Huron Street, has indicated that it would have to be a revenue-neutral move for them, Cooper said. The city has also has talked with Norfolk-Southern. The railroad’s main concern is that they can continue to run freight along that line, he said. The city hasn’t yet reached out to taxicab companies, Cooper said, but there are provisions for them in the design.
  • What are the terms for cost sharing? Phase I issues were hammered out between two willing partners, Cooper said – the city of Ann Arbor and UM. The memorandum of understanding calls for a 22%/78% cost-sharing split between the city and university on all items except for the environmental assessment, which the city will pay for. The city will get 200 of the 900 parking spaces. The MOU doesn’t address the later phases of the project, including the train station, except to say that both parties will work to bring it to reality, Cooper said. [.pdf file of memorandum of understanding between Ann Arbor and UM]
  • Will the payments continue from UM to the city’s parks and recreation program? The simple answer is yes, Cooper said. The MOU includes the amount for leasing the footprint of the Phase 1 facility, he said. The numbers are based on the area that the structure will be built on, which is slightly smaller than the current surface lot. Users of city parks will have access to the remaining surface lot, as well as to about 100 spaces on the first level of the structure.
  • Are there requests for funding in progress? The project didn’t receive federal high-speed rail funding, Cooper said. The state Dept. of Transportation (MDOT) had requested that the city join in with the state on the application – in hindsight, Cooper said, maybe they shouldn’t have. Fuller Road Station is a project that’s been approved by the Federal Rail Authority, he noted – but funds ran out. If more funding is available, the project will be in line to get it. There’s also the possibility of funding via the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority, Cooper said. The AATA has an application for funds through the Federal Transit Administration – AATA will be notified of that decision in mid-April, he said.
  • Explain the types of agreements related to the use of this land. The land on which Fuller Road Station will be built is city-owned and always will be, Cooper said. The structure will also be city-owned. It’s a use agreement, not a lease agreement, between the city and the university – allowing the university to use 78% of the structure.
  • Describe the history of parking at this location. The city and the university entered into an agreement in 1993 to create a surface parking lot on the Fuller Road site, which the university agreed to lease. The agreement has provisions that allow the lot to be used at certain times by users of the Ann Arbor parks. [2MB .pdf of the 1993 agreement]

Cooper said that he could provide answers to other questions in more detail in the future, if commissioners wanted.

After Cooper concluded his remarks, Dick Mitchell of the Ann Arbor firm of Mitchell and Mouat and Deb Cooper of Beckett & Raeder, also based in Ann Arbor, described design elements of the project, covering much of the same ground that had been presented at the Feb. 10 public forum. Dave Dykman, a project manager for the city, gave an update on the project’s timeline, which he had also covered at the February forum.

Fuller Road Station Questions and Comments: Finance

Sam Offen asked several questions related to financial aspects of the project. He clarified that the university pays the city $31,000 annually for use of the lot, and will continue to do so for the next two years. But when the structure is built, the city will get only $24,846 in annual payments.

Cooper reiterated that the future payments reflect the smaller footprint on which the facility will be built, compared to the current surface lot.

Offen then asked whether the city will continue to get payments from other properties that the university currently pays for. Cooper said that the existing surface lot isn’t covered in the MOU, but that he didn’t think it was a stretch to say that there could be revenue from that lot too. That would be a decision for city council and administration, he said.

Offen asked about the city-owned parking lots on the north side of Fuller Road, which the university also leases. Cooper said those lots hadn’t been part of the talks regarding Fuller Road Station. Offen noted that the 1993 agreement between the city and UM covered those north lots, and that the city still receives payments for them. Is there an agreement with the university about the future of those lots?

Colin Smith, the city’s parks and recreation manager, noted that the commissioners had received copies of an agreement covering the lease of city-owned lots on Fuller Road. [The two-year lease, which expires on Aug. 31, 2010, includes annual payments of $31,057 for Lot A, on the south side of Fuller. For the two lots on the north side, the city gets $31,057 for Lot B and $7,438 for Lot C, which is unpaved.]

Offen wondered whether the university would need to use those lots on the north side, given that they’ll be getting so many additional spaces when the Fuller Road Station structure is completed. If they don’t need those north lots, then the city will be losing about $38,000 annually, he noted, which goes into the parks budget. Offen said he didn’t want that possibility to get lost during negotiations.

[During a March 1, 2010 city council meeting, city administrator Roger Fraser alluded to the fact that the university likely won't use those north lots, though he did not mention the financial implications. From The Chronicle report of that meeting: "Fraser said the expectation was that access to city parks would actually be improved – cars currently parked across Fuller Road from the planned station would be parked in the structure, and that would 'free up land for that game of frisbee,' he concluded."]

Cooper said there was a cost involved to building the structure, but added that the project was also expanding opportunities for new revenues – for example, from Greyhound or for rail. Those opportunities haven’t ripened yet to the degree that he anticipates they will.

Gwen Nystuen asked how much of the project’s financing the city council had already approved. The council has approved some aspects, but the project team will be returning to council for additional authorization of expenditures, 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.]

Doug Chapman asked whether the university’s current payment to the city for the Fuller Road lot was all directed into the parks budget. Colin Smith confirmed that it was. Chapman pointed out that under the memorandum of understanding, the new payment of roughly $25,000 will be paid proportionally – that is, the university will pay only 78% of that amount – so there will be even less than $25,000 coming to parks, he said. Smith wasn’t sure that would be the case. It was possible that the city’s 22% portion would be directed to parks via a transfer of city funds.

Julie Grand acknowledged the people who had spoken during public commentary, and said that many of the PAC members shared their frustrations. At a time when the mayor has indicated they can’t spend more on parkland, the project seems like it will be adding costs related to upkeep, she said. Cooper noted that much of the landscaping would be native plants, which require low maintenance. There will be some investment required in establishing bioswales on the site, he said, but those expenses are being factored into the project cost. Details still need to be worked out with the university over ongoing maintenance costs, he said.

Grand said it sounded like the ship had sailed on the project, but that she had very serious concerns about its operating budget. It was ludicrous that the city would be getting less money from the university, she said.

Tim Berla raised concerns over how much UM was paying to use the structure, saying it sounded like a good deal for the university, but that it didn’t make as much sense for the city. Cooper said there would be future agreements negotiated between the city and the university.

Cooper later noted that the discussion seemed to reflect that commissioners viewed the situation as a zero-sum game. In fact, he said, there will likely be other users of the facility in the future who will provide additional revenue to the city. The expectation is that Fuller Road Station will become a viable, busy facility with several transportation providers, he said.

Fuller Road Station Questions & Comments: Design

The parking structure is being called Phase 1 – Doug Chapman asked how many phases are there? That depends on the funding they can secure, Dykman said.

Offen asked Cooper what he thought about Pollack’s design suggestion – to use the soccer fields and create a longer, lower structure. Cooper praised Pollack’s experience and knowledge about that area. Members of the design team have taken their cues from the city council as well as the park advisory commission, he added, and that was to preserve, as much as possible, the integrity of the park area, including the soccer fields. That’s why they’ve kept the east and west footprint of the structure within the existing boundaries of the surface parking lot, he said. Pollack raises an interesting design concept, Cooper said, but “I’m not in a position to make those decisions.” They’ll continue to advance the project under the design concepts approved by city council and the UM board of regents, he said, while passing along input like Pollack’s.

Gwen Nystuen noted that Cooper had talked about both a concept phase and a design phase – which phase was the project in, she asked. The city council and the university regents have approved the project’s concept plan, Cooper clarified. Designs are now being worked out beyond the site’s footprint and the number of spaces involved.

Tim Berla asked for clarification about when the public can provide meaningful input. Christopher Taylor, who serves on PAC and represents Ward 3 on city council, said the council hasn’t written the final check, but he wasn’t sure what the next step would be in terms of the approval process.

Cooper clarified that a site plan would be submitted to the city’s planning commission, probably within three to four months. No approval is required by PAC, he said.

Colin Smith told commissioners that they could draft a resolution giving input to council, but he also noted that two councilmembers serve on PAC – Taylor and Mike Anglin (Ward 5) – and they could convey PAC’s concerns to their colleagues on council.

Fuller Road Station Questions & Comments: Traffic Issues

Offen asked whether the city had conducted a traffic study of the area around the Fuller Road site. Yes, Cooper said, an exhaustive study was done – the 396-page report is posted online – and it indicates that there’s a problem at the Maiden Lane/Fuller Road intersection. The city is preparing a request for proposals (RFP) for a design team to address the situation – that might include converting the intersection to a roundabout. Other options include installing high-intensity activated crosswalks, known as HAWKs.

Julie Grand asked whether these changes would require using additional parkland. Cooper said that a roundabout would likely expand the intersection’s footprint, but that in exchange, there would be land in the center of the roundabout. He noted that the intersection issue will exist regardless of what happens with the Fuller Road Station.

Gwen Nystuen expressed concern that there are already traffic problems in that area, even without a large parking structure.

Fuller Road Station Questions & Comments: Misc.

Offen asked whether there would be spots for Zipcars, the car-sharing program that currently operates in the city and on UM’s campus. Cooper said that’s one of many things they’re talking about.

Grand said that she regularly rode her bike to UM’s School of Public Health, and that many people rode their bikes to the medical center. Why would they use a bike station at the Fuller Road Station, she asked, if they could just as easily ride directly to their destination? Cooper said the initial phase creates a “palette” for the concept of a bike station to evolve. In the future, it might include showers where people can freshen up after a long ride, a bike maintenance area and other amenities. He said he believes there are commuter cyclists who would use such a facility.

Berla noted that it was PAC’s job to evaluate whether the project was good for the parks system. Now, there’s a parking lot in that location. From the parks standpoint, there’s no need for more parking. A large building isn’t good for the parks, and less revenue is bad. So it seems like it’s difficult to argue in favor of the project, assuming they’re looking out for the parks, he concluded.

Cooper said he believed the agreement kept the city at parity, and said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. He hoped that in the end, everyone would be pleased and proud of the facility.

John Lawter wrapped up the discussion by saying that PAC would likely ask Cooper to return for additional updates as the project progresses.

Leslie Science and Nature Center

Earlier in the meeting, John Lawter, PAC’s vice chair, asked commissioner Sam Offen to introduce Greta Brunschwyler. Offen is on the board of Leslie Science and Nature Center, and said they’d conducted a nationwide search following the resignation of former executive director Kirsten Levinsohn. [See Chronicle coverage: "Leslie Science Center Turns Calendar"] Brunschwyler had been the board’s unanimous choice to replace Levinsohn, Offen said.

Brunschwyler spoke briefly, saying she’d received a warm welcome in Ann Arbor. She previously was vice president for programs at the High Desert Museum in Bend, Oregon, and she had also served as director of the Nevada State Museum and Historical Society in Las Vegas. She planned to bring her skills to bear on her new job, she said, focusing on bringing really great programs to the community. She said she looked forward to an even stronger, more wonderful relationship between the city and the science center.

Volunteering with Natural Area Preservation Program

Jason Frenzel, volunteer and outreach coordinator for the city’s Natural Area Preservation program, gave a brief overview of different volunteer programs within the city. He told commissioners that in the coming months, he’d be bringing volunteers to PAC meetings – they would provide more detailed descriptions of the programs, he said. Volunteer opportunities range from biological inventories like the breeding birds survey or the toad and frog survey, to stewardship workdays, controlled burns, tree plantings and other activities.

In response to a question from commissioner Gwen Nystuen, Frenzel said that last year between 1,000 to 2,000 volunteers logged a total of about 7,000 hours. Each program varies in terms of the number of volunteers, recruitment policies and retention rates, he said.

Frenzel also thanked commissioners for their own volunteer efforts in the city’s parks.

Report from the Parks and Recreation Manager

Colin Smith, the city’s parks and recreation manager, told commissioners that their meetings in June, September and December of this year would be held at the Community Television Network studios, 2805 S. Industrial Hwy., Suite 200. Because of construction at the city’s new municipal center, PAC’s meetings are currenlty being held in the boardroom of the county administration building. During those months, however, the county needs to use the room for other meetings, Smith said.

PAC’s April meeting will be devoted to the budget, Smith said. Also in April, the parks staff expects to provide the city’s golf course task force with a draft of a request for proposals (RFP) for the Huron Hills Golf Course. The RFP will likely come to PAC in May, Smith said. [As part of the city's budget deliberations, the possibility of privatizing Huron Hills is being discussed. At their February meeting, PAC members received an update on that possibility from Julie Grand, who serves on the golf task force.]

Smith also noted that there had been quite a few emails about dogs being off-leash in Bird Hills. Last fall, police officers had spent some time in that area informing people about the city’s leash ordinance and handing out informational cards. Smith said he’s asked the police department to do the same thing this spring, if possible, but he said that given everything else on their plate, with fewer resources, this task might not rise to the top. It’s fair to say, Smith added, that the city’s leash ordinance isn’t followed very well – people should keep their dogs on a leash and pick up after them.

Present: John Lawter, Gwen Nystuen, Sam Offen, Julie Grand, Doug Chapman, Karen Levin, Tim Berla, Mike Anglin (ex-officio), Christopher Taylor (ex-officio)

Absent: David Barrett, Scott Rosencrans

Next meeting: Tuesday, April 20 at 4 p.m. in the Washtenaw County administration building boardroom, 220 N. Main St. [confirm date]

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