Tim Berla of the Ann Arbor Park Advisory Commission has a suggestion to liven up the proposed Fuller Road transit center: Add a pub. You can bet that people who use the nearby city athletic fields would grab a post-game beer there, he told Eli Cooper at Tuesday’s PAC meeting.
Cooper, the city’s transportation program manager, was soliciting feedback from PAC members and giving them an update on the project known as FITS – the Fuller Intermodal Transportation Station. FITS is a joint venture by the University of Michigan and the city of Ann Arbor that would include 900 parking spaces in a multi-level structure.
Cooper made clear that the two partners are hoping to get more input from the general public, too. To that end, on Thursday, Sept. 17, the city will host two public forums at city hall, from 3-5 p.m. and 6-8 p.m. After incorporating feedback from a variety of stakeholders, Cooper said the city hoped to present the facility’s conceptual design for approval at the city council’s Oct. 19 meeting.
Meanwhile, at Tuesday’s meeting several PAC commissioners had questions about the project, including a query about the designation of the city-owned land being used: In the city’s master plan, it’s designated as parkland – which didn’t originally mean a place to park cars. For zoning purposes, however, parkland is under the broader designation of “public land” – which can include transportation uses.
FITS: Status Update
By way of background, the transit center has been discussed for years but has gained momentum recently, surfacing at several public meetings over the past few months. At the July UM Board of Regents meeting, Hank Baier – the university’s associate vice president for facilities and operations – told regents that UM was talking seriously with the city about the Fuller Road station. The site is near the university’s medical complex, with thousands of employees and patients traveling into the area each day. Because UM was considering the Fuller Road project, Baier said at that meeing, they had put a hold on plans to build two parking structures on nearby Wall Street, including one on nearby Wall Street and one on north campus.
By August, UM and the city had reached an agreement. They would split the cost of the first phase: UM agreed to pay $327,733 of an estimated $541,717 cost, with the city picking up the rest. The city’s portion of the cost will go toward an environmental impact study – they’d need that environmental impact data if they apply for federal funding. If the project moves ahead, it’s expected to cost roughly $65 million.
Cooper told PAC members that this specific 3-acre site, which the city owns, is unique in Washtenaw County for several reasons. It’s located next to an east-west rail line, with easy access to major roads. The location is also near a large employer – the University of Michigan Health System. That makes for a convergence of modes of transportation and high-demand users, he said.
[At the Aug. 17 city council meeting, Sue McCormick – the city's director of public services – also noted that the site was within the corridor of analysis for a north-south connector study for the Plymouth Road and State Street corridors.]
The design for this station began as a large, single building, Cooper said. But about two weeks ago, a group of around 50 stakeholders – including representatives from the city, UM, the state Department of Transportation, the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority and others – met and hashed out possible designs.
They ultimately came to a consensus on a two-building option: A large, multi-level transit center with 900 parking spaces, plus a much smaller two-level train station connected to platforms for commuter rail. Set between the two would be a drop-off area and public plaza, perhaps with a sculpture garden. The rationale for two buildings, Cooper said, was a sense that the transit train station should be architecturally distinct.
In a followup phone conversation with The Chronicle, Cooper said that the first phase of the project – assuming eventual approval by the city and UM – would be the larger transit center. It would include parking on the upper levels and a bus/taxi shuttle, as well as a bike station and waiting area on the first floor. Because the university had previously been willing to invest in parking structures on Wall Street, it’s likely UM would have capital available for this project, he said, to partner with the city. It’s less clear whether a university contribution would be available for the train station and platforms, but federal money is one option the city plans to pursue.
In addition to the two buildings, the conceptual drawing that Cooper brought to PAC showed a roundabout at the intersection of Fuller and Maiden Lane. The roundabout is only one possible approach to managing traffic, he later told The Chronicle. They’ll also look at the possibility of adding signals at intersections for pedestrian crossings.
Cooper told PAC that the city currently leases a portion of the land to UM for a parking lot. He said they are sensitive to the park environment, and plan to keep the buildings as much as possible on the same footprint as the existing lot. In a followup phone conversation, Cooper said the east/west footprint would be the same as the current lot, but that there would be some extension to the south to link the buildings to the railroad platforms and to a possible pedestrian walkway connecting to the UM medical complex.
Questions from PAC
Several PAC commissioners had questions for Cooper after his presentation. Sam Offen started off by saying that he understood the desire to have an architecturally distinct transit train station. But he wondered what would be lost in efficiency, as people parked their cars in one building, then walked to a different building to catch the train. What might be gained in aesthetics could be lost operationally by the people who actually use the facility, he said.
Cooper responded by noting that there will likely be different kinds of users: commuters who use only the parking structure and have little interaction with the transit train station; commuters who come in via train and who work close by; and long-haul Amtrak riders who’ll likely be picked up and dropped off. Commuters who use the train frequently tend to be very efficient, Cooper said – they know the schedule, and know how much time to allow to get to their departure point. He said that changing the design from the original one-building concept involved some compromise.
Responding to a query about whether there’d be a covered passage between the two buildings, Cooper confirmed there would be such a passage.
Offen mentioned a presentation that local developer Peter Allen had made at a previous PAC meeting. [Allen is part of Riverfront LLC, a group of UM graduate students, developers and architects. They've made presentations to a few different public bodies, including city council and the UM Board of Regents, advocating for the Fuller Road site to become a welcome center for Ann Arbor and the university. Their proposal includes residential and retail components as well as the transit center station.] Offen said he liked Allen’s proposal for retail at that location. A restaurant or coffee shop would bring activity to the area in the evenings and weekends, he said, and provide a waiting area for commuters and other travelers.
Doug Chapman – PAC’s newest member, who was attending his first meeting on Tuesday as commissioner – asked what would happen to Amtrak’s existing station, located on Depot Street. Cooper said they’d had discussions with Amtrak, but that there was no commitment to relocate. Amtrak officials are interested in relocating if the station is built for them, he said, but there’s been no discussion about what would happen to Amtrak’s current station. Aside from signature stations in major metro areas, Amtrak doesn’t think of its stations as a benefit to its system, Cooper said – a remark that drew laughs from commissioners.
PAC commissioner Gwen Nystuen asked Cooper to explain the land’s designation – was it, in fact, parkland? The land is designated parks in the city’s Parks, Recreation & Open Space (PROS) plan as well as the Central Area Plan. Cooper explained that the city had acquired the property in bits and pieces since the 1880s. The city attorney’s office had examined deeds and other records to determine whether any of the property had stipulations on its use – whether, for example, any of the pieces required that they be used exclusively for parkland. They found no such stipulations, he said.
Colin Smith, the city’s parks and recreation manager, added that his staff had been involved in the project, with the goal of adding elements like an connection to the county’s border-to-border trail and other park features. He said they’ve scheduled a meeting between parks staff and the city attorney’s office to get clarity on zoning issues. Parks are considered “public lands” under the city’s zoning ordinance. Nystuen said the project would present an entirely new use of parkland. “It does raise several issues,” she said.
Responding to another question from John Lawter, PAC’s vice chair, Cooper said that the current surface parking lot leased by UM has about 250 spaces, while the proposed transit structure – which will likely be four or five levels high – calls for around 900 spaces.
Speaking with The Chronicle on Wednesday, Cooper stressed that “this is all still in the very, very preliminary stages,” though the idea for an intermodal station can be traced back several years. It stems in part from the city’s 2006 Model for Mobility effort, gaining momentum more recently from the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) push for an east-west commuter rail from Ann Arbor to Detroit as well as pressure from residents opposed to two parking structures that UM was planning to build on Wall Street, across the Huron River from the Fuller Road site.
When considering alternatives to UM’s Wall Street projects, the city commissioned a feasibility analysis for an intermodal center on Fuller. That report was issued in March of 2009, and indicated that such a project was, in fact, feasible. At that point city staff approached the university – those talks led to the current partnership, Cooper said.
At its Aug. 17 meeting, city council approved the hiring of JJR to handle several aspects of the transit center’s preliminary site work: 1) an analysis of utility relocation – DTE and wastewater – that would be needed if the project moved ahead, 2) a traffic and transportation analysis, and 3) an environmental assessment of the site.
After gathering community input and getting council approval for the conceptual design, work could proceed on a more detailed design, moving in parallel with JJR’s site work and analysis. Cooper expects the intermodal center – the building with the parking decks – could be completed by mid-2012.
Meanwhile, the city is seeking federal funding for the larger project, which would also include the train station and platforms. Just this week the city applied for $40 million from the highly competitive Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants, which has $1.5 billion for projects nationwide. While it’s possible that the train station component never gets built, Cooper said that local investment in the initial intermodal center could be helpful in securing federal funding for the remainder of the project.