UM Pitches Plan to Close Monroe Street

Discussion ranges from philosophical to the concrete
proposed area

Yellow: new law school building to be constructed in place of surface parking. Blue: student commons to be renovated. Monroe Street is the road just north of the new law school building. (Click image for larger view.)

Glimpsing through the door of room 116 of Hutchins Hall at UM Law School on Tuesday evening, The Chronicle could see what seemed like a late-evening class in session. Not sure of the room number we wanted, it was with some caution that we nosed further into the room. Ah. The familiar faces of Tony Derezinski, newly elected Ann Arbor city council representative of Ward 2, and Dave DeVarti, until recently a DDA board member, confirmed we were in the right place. It was a meeting hosted by UM to discuss with interested neighbors UM’s interest in a permanent closure of a section of Monroe Street. Representatives from the UM were Sue Gott, university planner, and Jim Kosteva, director of community relations. The section in question is between Oakland on the east and State Street on the west.

The idea is that the area would become a pedestrian zone, but still accessible to emergency vehicles. It would serve to connect “physically and psychologically” the new law school building to be constructed on the south side of Monroe between State and Oakland and the buildings to the north of Monroe.

Having arrived after Gott’s presentation of the project details, The Chronicle pieced together those bits from the 7 or 8 citizens’ comments and questions, which were already well under way. DeVarti was recalling a demonstration some two years ago in connection with some event at the Ford School involving Alan Haber and some other left-thinking folks. DeVarti said that UM police had told the demonstrators they could not stand with their signs on the sidewalk on the UM side of State Street. The demonstrators had complied with the UM police request to leave, DeVarti said, adding that he himself would have been inclined to allow himself to be arrested on the basis that it was a public sidewalk.

Just when The Chronicle was beginning to question if we were actually in the right room, DeVarti connected the dots to the proposed street closure: What guarantees the continued right to freely express dissent in Monroe Street if control of the public right of way is turned over to UM? In the ensuing discussion, it became apparent that this was a key component of the UM proposal: the city of Ann Arbor would cede the public right of way to control by UM. Philosophically, DeVarti said he had a problem with substituting UM police – who have an “insulated process of accountability” via the UM Regents, who are elected in statewide elections for 8-year terms – for city of Ann Arbor police officers, who are overseen more directly via democratically-elected city council members.

Local attorney Jonathan Rose pressed the point of DeVarti’s demonstrators who were asked to leave. He asked both Kosteva and Gott: “Do you believe there’s a risk that this [ceding of the public ROW] will have a negative effect on the freedom to express dissent?” Gott wanted nothing to do with the topic. “I can’t speak to that,” she said. Kosteva, for his part, handled the question by suggesting that he and Rose disagreed about their perceptions of UM. Kosteva said that he saw the UM campus as a place that is open and conducive to dissent. He allowed that there were thresholds that couldn’t be crossed – for example, setting up booths, stands or tabletops without a permit. He also outlined a step-by-step protocol for managing disruption of speakers on campus.

But Kosteva eventually granted part of Rose’s point: that the overall ambiance resulting from a street closure so that the area became more clearly a part of campus could have an effect of making that area less conducive to the expression of dissent.

Rose then asked what other reason there might be for UM to want control of the public ROW other than to be able to curb expression of dissent, perhaps even against itself: “I haven’t heard a reason why it matters for traffic, safety, ambiance, whether UM controls it or the city of Ann Arbor controls it. Is there any reason?” Gott offered that if UM controlled it, then access for snow removal and care of plantings would be easier. DeVarti countered that there’s a requirement for property owners to keep sidewalks clear.

In addition to the philosophical, the meeting covered numerous nuts and bolts issues: transportation strategies, bump-ins, lane additions, parking management strategies. And Rose wrapped up the meeting by saying that he was “impressed in a positive way with the astuteness that parking has been analyzed: it should be optimal and not maximal.” But hammering home the philosophical point, he concluded: “This astuteness does not equate to turning over public right of way to the university. Come up with something else. Turning over the rights of who comes and goes to the administration of the University of Michigan is wrong.”

One of the nuts and bolts issues raised by one property owner in the area was possible compensation to the city of Ann Arbor for the land acquisition that the UM was proposing. Kosteva said that UM was not currently contemplating any quid pro quo and portrayed any such arrangement in a historical context where there had not been such arrangements. Kosteva stressed that there were extensive financial arrangements with the city – including compensation – for a variety of projects: the Forest parking structure, park and ride lots on Green Road and South State, re-surfacing of streets adjacent to campus. He mentioned the high-capacity transit connector, for which a study is currently being undertaken, as an example of a project where the city, the DDA, and AATA were partnering with equal financial contributions. Kosteva also pointed out that there are UM roads on north campus that it allows people to use as a public thoroughfare, but there is no accounting for that. Said Kosteva, “Some may and some may not keep a tally.”

To this the resident said that he loved the university and that no one could argue the massive benefit the institution brought to the community. But as a property owner, he said, he was increasingly concerned that as property taxes rose the financial burden on individual property owners grew, while the university, which does not pay property taxes, was free of the financial burden of taxation as well as the need to comply with any of the city codes.

Another nuts and bolts issue had to do with the impact on traffic from closing Monroe. Gott presented maps indicating various levels of traffic flow for intersections in the area, which were mostly in the A and B range. The measures of traffic flow are “service levels” in traffic engineering jargon, and are graded based on a scale roughly like grades in school. The three maps that Gott displayed  showed current and projected levels of service. It is the fact that Monroe is very lightly traveled by motor traffic that has convinced university planners it’s feasible to close it completely to traffic. DeVarti noted that one intersection (from The Chronicle’s seat, it appeared to be Oakland & Hill) showed improvement from D to C, instead of the slight worsening of service shown by other intersections “How do you explain that?” asked DeVarti. Other than to confirm that a change from D to C represented an improvement, Gott was not able to offer an explanation. DeVarti joked that maybe we should just put a letter B there, because that would be an even greater improvement.

To the question of whether there were any other properties coveted by the university for acquisition in a similar fashion, Kosteva and Gott said they did not know of any. But DeVarti pointed to Buffalo Street, which is the city-owned parking lot north of gate 9 of the Michigan Stadium. “The university wants that!” said DeVarti. There may be even more recent history, but The Chronicle found a resolution from the year 2000 which Ann Arbor’s city council passed on the matter:

RESOLVED, That the City reject the idea to vacate Buffalo Street, for the third time in six years;

RESOLVED, That the City develop a plan to maximize continuing income from the property through parking permits, special events parking, and/or leasing of the site to a private/public entity;

RESOLVED, That the City evaluate the site for affordable housing, and other uses that would help the City meet its goals and objectives;

RESOLVED, That the City not entertain the idea of vacating Buffalo Street to the University of Michigan until a final use of the property by the University is made public and the University and City provides for public review of the project and impact it may have on the surrounding neighborhoods;

A further nuts and bolts issue that DeVarti said needed to be better explained is the motivation for closing the street, especially in light of the fact that UM acknowledges that it does not require the closure for its space needs – the buildings could still be built in exactly the same way without the pedestrian area between them. “Does the dean not want to cross the street? Have students said in a survey that they don’t like to cross the dangerous Monroe Street?” joked DeVarti. Gott said that there was an interest in the physical and psychological connection and continuity of campus. The Chronicle found this idea expressed in a report from consulting firm Johnson, Johnson & Roylinc.

In addition, the vacation of Monroe Street between Oakland and State and East Madison Street between Packard and Thompson [Chronicle note: cf. discussion above of other streets possibly of interest to UM] would help to re-enforce the pedestrian orientation of the core of the campus without detracting from the ability of vehicles to move about the campus in an effective manner. The University should be prepared to work with the City toward the improvement of certain intersections which are essential to an effective circulation pattern in the Central Campus area. In particular, the State/Hill/Packard area and the Packard/Division area could benefit from simplification and improvements to existing traffic flow patterns. Finally, the sense of arrival and entrance at the campus boundaries needs to be strengthened visually so that visitors arriving on the campus will realize that they have in fact arrived at The University of Michigan Central Campus and then can proceed to their desired destination. Detailed information on campus destinations and circulation systems should be provided at these entry ways and at the point where visitors change mode of transportation from the vehicular to the pedestrian mode. In some cases where the entrance to the campus is primarily by pedestrians, such as the corners of State and North University and East University and South University, specific design approaches incorporating ideas such as low seat walls, special pavement patterns or even sculpture could be used to signify entrance to the campus itself.

The date on the report is 1987. DeVarti said that he thought that a key difference between the UM campus and the MSU campus in Lansing was the degree of integration with the surrounding community at UM. Integration, he said, was something that he’d heard time and again as something that was valued about the UM campus. He said that he thought the two values of coherence of campus and integration with the community were both important and it was a matter of balancing them.

The meeting resulted in a couple of specific suggestions that Gott and Kosteva said they would look into: (i) the suggestion for a bump-in on State Street at the end of Monroe for loading and unloading and student drop off, (ii) the suggestion to pursue at least a temporary arrangement for UM to use the Pfizer parking structure.

Editor’s note: Chronicle readers who see a clear connection between this story and the discussion of the Quickie Burger liquor license transfer get bonus points for reading previous Chronicle articles really closely.


  1. December 3, 2008 at 8:09 pm | permalink

    The annual Monroe Street Fair uses that stretch of street:

  2. By Vivienne Armentrout
    December 3, 2008 at 9:32 pm | permalink

    If you are going to continue putting in riddles for the reader, you really should have an answer section. I never found out what the solution to the errant McCain sign was. Will WordPress allow upside down typography?

  3. December 3, 2008 at 9:45 pm | permalink

    I’m all in favor of banning cars from streets. Can’t that be done without turning the street over to the U?

  4. By Dave Askins
    December 3, 2008 at 10:19 pm | permalink

    “I never found out what the solution to the errant McCain sign was.”

    Sorry. Here’s what the person did with the McCain sign.

  5. By Dave Askins
    December 3, 2008 at 10:20 pm | permalink

    “Can’t that be done without turning the street over to the U?”

    The understanding I had on listening to the meeting conversation was absolutely yes.

  6. December 8, 2008 at 12:38 pm | permalink

    To follow up somewhat less obliquely on an issue raised by Edward Vielmetti above, at last year’s Hash Bash, which was relocated to this area of Monroe Street due to a previously-reserved event on the Diag, the consumers were directed to one side of the City/ University border by those familiar with the differences in statutes (eg: Ann Arbor is lenient, the University very harsh). In relocating the border so that all attendants at the Monroe Street Fair would be under University jurisdiction, this proposal would directly affect the future of Hash Bash.