Transit Forum Critiques Fuller Road Station

Expert predicts structure would be torn down in 20 years

Chris Leinberger was blunt in his assessment of the proposed Fuller Road Station: If the parking structure is built as proposed, in 20 years it will be torn down.

Fuller Road parking lot

The city-owned Fuller Road parking lot, site of the proposed Fuller Road Station. To the south of the lot is the University of Michigan medical complex. (Photos by the writer.)

Speaking at a forum on transit-oriented development, Leinberger – a University of Michigan professor of practice in urban planning – said current plans for the joint UM/city of Ann Arbor project do a good job of incorporating different kinds of transit, from bikes and buses to perhaps, eventually, commuter rail.

But Leinberger criticized the project for taking some of Ann Arbor’s most valuable land and turning it into something that won’t generate revenue for the city. He told Eli Cooper, the city’s transportation program manager, that “whoever’s in your position 20 years from now will tear it down.”

Monday’s forum, held at the UM Art & Architecture building on north campus, was organized by members of the WALLY Coalition and the 208 Group, among others, to focus on local transit-oriented development efforts. Moderated by local developer Peter Allen, the event included presentations by Cooper, Richard Murphy of the city of Ypsilanti and Shea Charles, Howell’s city manager.

Walkable Urban vs. Drivable Sub-Urban

Chris Leinberger began his presentation by noting that Doug Kelbaugh, former dean of UM’s College of Architecture and Urban Planning, had written a book with Peter Calthorpe – “The Pedestrian Pocket Book” – in which they coined the term transit-oriented development. “So in a sense,” Leinberger said, “it started here.” [The name Calthorpe is familiar to Ann Arbor residents for another reason – the city hired Calthorpe's firm to help develop a zoning and land use strategy. The result of that work was the Calthorpe Report.]

Transportation drives development, Leinberger said. To illustrate, he outlined a post-World War II shift in America from walkable urban environments to drivable “sub-urban” settings in what he characterized as the country’s largest social engineering project. The shift was facilitated by 1) zoning laws that made walkable urban designs illegal, 2) massive subsidies for roads, and 3) finance and real estate industries that are far more comfortable with suburban development. Race played a factor, too, in pushing development out of the cities.

But the pendulum is swinging back to favor walkable urban design, Leinberger contends. Several factors are at play, including a downturn in the market that’s structural, not cyclical, he said. The suburbs are overbuilt, and demographics are changing. In the 1950s, 50% of households had children – today, only 33% do, and in the next few decades that percentage will drop even more. “The demographics are telling us something,” he said.

Chris Lienberger

Chris Leinberger, a developer, UM professor of practice in urban planning and visiting fellow at The Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

Other factors have more to do with attitude. “Boredom is a much underrated motivation for social change,” Leinberger said, adding that people are recognizing how strip malls degrade quality of life.

Also at play: the expense of maintaining a household fleet of vehicles is no longer sustainable, Leinberger said. And a third of Americans don’t drive, either because they’re too young, too old, disabled or disinclined. “I think the days of 15 million in car sales per year are long gone,” he said.

All of this contributes to a structural change taking place in development. And high demand for walkable urban settings puts a price premium in areas like Ann Arbor, he said.

Rail transit plays an important role in making walkable urban design feasible. But paying for it is an issue, especially in an age of declining federal resources. Leinberger said we can learn from the past – 100 years ago, 80% of all rail transit was built by real estate developers, with the rest paid for by power companies.

Leinberger laid out a range of funding options for transit projects, from tax-increment financing to private special assessment districts. He believes the availability of federal funds will decrease, because “we just don’t have the money.” That’s one reason why it’s important to encourage private investment, and to change the requirements that constrain the ability to leverage private dollars for public transit. He cited a nearby example: The proposed Woodward Avenue line in downtown Detroit has backing from private investors, which the federal government initially wasn’t going to include as a match for federal funding.

What’s Happening Locally: WALLY, East-West Rail

There are two local commuter rail efforts: the Washtenaw and Livingston Line, known as WALLY, and an east-west commuter rail between Ann Arbor and Detroit. Representatives from three municipalities connected with those efforts spoke at Monday’s forum.


Shea Charles, Howell city manager, gave an overview of his city’s work as it relates to the rail project. Howell would be a terminus for WALLY, which also would include stops in Genoa Township, Hamburg and Whitmore Lake, ultimately ending in Ann Arbor. He noted that the railroad’s owners hope eventually to extend the northern route to Traverse City, and possibly go as far south as Toledo.

Charles described Howell as a classic downtown urban area, with a train depot about 2.5 blocks away from the city’s main intersection of Michigan and Grand River avenues. He said potential development around the depot could include a six-level parking deck, and noted that a portion of the site is a brownfield.

Leinberger was asked to comment on Howell’s plans, as was Susan Zielinski, managing director of UM’s SMART (Sustainable Mobility and Accessibility Research and Transformation) program. Leinberger said if the city was going to have to pay for the commuter line, they’d need to shoot for much higher density to generate more tax revenues. Tax-increment financing was viable, he said. But the problem is that site improvements like housing or retail, which create the additional tax revenue captured by TIF, also create a demand for public services, like police and fire. And if you’re using 20 years worth of TIF revenues to develop the site, other parts of the city will end up subsidizing those public services.

Susan Zielinski

Susan Zielinski, managing director of UM's SMART program. SMART stands for Sustainable Mobility and Accessibility Research and Transformation.

In her response to Howell’s plans, Zielinski characterized the node as one of a string of pearls. She urged the audience to think about how the train connects to other parts of the community, as well as how the stations in different cities connect to each other. She also noted that the goal of transit is accessibility, not mobility for mobility’s sake.

Technology will be able to play a role in making these connections, she said. Imagine using your iPhone to reserve a Zipcar at the next stop, for example, or interconnecting the fares for different systems to make payments easier for commuters.

Ann Arbor

Next up was Eli Cooper, transportation program manager for the city of Ann Arbor, who gave an abbreviated version of presentation he’d made at a Feb. 10 public forum. He described Fuller Road Station as an intermodal “mecca,” with the ultimate goal of creating a hub for commuters into Ann Arbor near one of the city’s major employers, the University of Michigan Health System.

Peter Allen noted that in terms of development, the Broadway Village at Lowertown – a mixed-use project that he described as being  “trapped by the economic downturn” – was only four blocks from the proposed transit station.

Leinberger said the Fuller Road site was “golden” in terms of future development, given its proximity to the Huron River and the premium put on land in that area. He suggested building an underground structure, if possible. Another idea – one he said would likely get Cooper “hung” – was to narrow Fuller Road, making it more walkable.

But fundamentally, a parking structure will under-utilize the land, Leinberger said, and drive out every other type of development. It won’t generate revenues on the site, he said, and in 20 years will be torn down to accommodate something more appropriate – “because the land will be too valuable.”

In her critique, Zielinski said she liked the variety of transit options planned for the site, but thought it should be more of a mixed-use development.

Cooper noted that the site is designated as city parkland, which puts some constraints on development. But he also argued that the project is important because it would support one of the mainstays of the regional and state economy – the University of Michigan. He said that one of the suggestions from the city’s park advisory commission was to find a way to bring more active uses to the site. He said the structure will be built to be strong enough to support additional levels of housing on it in the future, but that finances will drive those decisions. Fundamentally, though, the project must be done in phases. “Crawl before you walk,” he said. “Walk before you run.”


The third city project was presented by Richard Murphy, an Ypsilanti city planner who recently accepted a job at the Michigan Suburbs Alliance – a nonprofit led by Conan Smith, who’s also a Washtenaw County commissioner. Ypsilanti’s train depot is in the Depot Town district, located between two parks – Riverside to the south and Frog Island to the north – which draw thousands of people to various festivals each year. The Eastern Michigan University campus to the northwest is another major player, Murphy said, with about 22,000 students and a fast-growing enrollment.

The freighthouse at the train depot is being rehabbed, Murphy said, and there are about 18 acres of a mostly abandoned industrial facility along the river to the north of Depot Town, which could be developed. But “downzoning” has been a trend in the city, he said, shifting toward single-family residential and away from higher-density zoning. Within a quarter-mile radius of the train depot, roughly a third of the land is zoned for single-family homes. There’s also resistance from Depot Town business owners to the commuter rail project, he said, adding that the political consensus for transit-oriented development isn’t there yet.

Murphy also noted that the city might have a “TIF allergy” – they used that strategy to finance redevelopment of the Water Street area along Michigan Avenue, but the land still stands vacant. The city is counting on TIF revenues to help pay $31 million in bonds over a 20-year period.

In responding to the project, Leinberger said that NIMBY opposition can be a critical hurdle to overcome for any type of high-density development. Giving examples from the Washington D.C. area, he said people were finally figuring out that a more walkable, urban environment yields a better quality of life – and accounts for a higher price premium on housing in those kinds of areas.

Leinberger also cautioned that if this region doesn’t invest in the commuter rail, “you’re going to be toast.” To prevent being stuck in a 20th-century economy, he said, rail is key to economic survival.

Southeast Michigan

Wrapping up the presentations was Dick Carlisle of the Ann Arbor planning firm Carlisle/Wortman Associates. Carlisle cited political fragmentation as the single most important obstacle in achieving transit-oriented development. This region has the resources, he said, but not the common vision.

There are over 50 units of government in Washtenaw and Livingston counties, Carlisle noted, and the regional economy will only prosper through collaboration. That effort must include leadership from the universities as well. He proposed forming a Green Growth Alliance, with WALLY as its transit spine, to develop a green and technology-based regional economy via a partnership of the public, private and institutional sectors.

Davy Rothbart

Davy Rothbart signs autographs before the start of Monday's transit forum. The publisher of FOUND Magazine had been speaking at an unrelated event in the same lecture hall, but The Chronicle did find a tenuous connection: In a June 2009 interview on, Rothbart talked about good spots for finding material: "Public transportation like buses and subway trains always seem to attract found stuff."


  1. By Pinus Nigra
    February 17, 2010 at 4:52 pm | permalink

    That photo is not the correct parking lot. The lot shown is the Fuller Pool lot. The FITS is proposed on the South Side of Fuller. There is another lot there.

  2. By Mary Morgan
    February 17, 2010 at 4:59 pm | permalink

    This is probably a great example of the fact that all parking lots tend to look the same. I took this photo, and can say with 100% certainty that it’s the lot south of Fuller, looking south at the towering UM medical complex. The Fuller Pool parking lot, on the north side of Fuller, might well have a similar view to the south.

  3. February 17, 2010 at 8:42 pm | permalink

    There has been a lot of criticism of the FITS project, but I don’t think most of the critics will like Leinberger’s analysis. Most of the criticisms I’ve heard in the community focus on the fact that FITS would change a park from a parking lot into a parking garage. Leinberger criticizes FITS because he thinks it should be more robust development.

  4. By Marvin Face
    February 17, 2010 at 9:46 pm | permalink


    Urban planners and developers want more development?


  5. By Tom Whitaker
    February 17, 2010 at 10:18 pm | permalink

    Leinberger is a developer.

  6. By Clan
    February 18, 2010 at 3:40 am | permalink

    WALLY, like the proposed county-wide bus system, and the possible city income tax, is inconsistent with the policy of discouraging urban sprawl. These things make it more desirable to live in the country and make use of the things that the city offers without paying for them.

  7. February 18, 2010 at 10:26 am | permalink

    As I understand, rail services tend to increase density along the rail line creating a transit corridor, which can relieve pressure for greenfield development. So yes, people may still be miles from where they work, but it still helps preserve greenspace and lessen commuting-related pollution.

    Much of the proposed services for the county-wide service are lifeline services for seniors and people with disabilities around the county.

  8. February 18, 2010 at 11:48 am | permalink

    But it is true that the AATA board has set policies aimed at promoting commuting by transit into Ann Arbor and that this would be a major focus of a county-wide or regional transit system.

    It has also been said openly that one purpose of FITS is to bring workers in to the UM.

    I wonder how much new development we can expect to see in Michigan over the next, say, 10 years, whether TOD or otherwise. We are losing population and employment (other than the UM) has been in a slump for years. The housing bubble burst and left a lot of new development sitting under foreclosure or selling at much lower prices than it was built for. Is it still reasonable to be making investments to encourage particular kinds of development?

  9. By jcp2
    February 18, 2010 at 3:21 pm | permalink

    Ann Arbor has the advantage of being a factory town. The University is not going anywhere. How about focusing on repairing and improving infrastructure and services, including local transit, within the city for people who are city residents? Coordinate the city limits to coincide with the school district. Make Ann Arbor relatively more attractive for University employees to live in, rather than commute to.

    I get that people chose to live outside the city because there is more perceived bang for the buck, but there always is a tipping point. As the near to intermediate term future for Michigan is stagnation, the City should focus on winning this zero sum game. As prospects improve, the strategy can change to involve a larger region.

    It doesn’t have to be perfect, just better than the alternatives. You don’t have to outrun the bear, just the adjacent towns and townships.

  10. By John Floyd
    February 18, 2010 at 6:42 pm | permalink

    @ 9 I am in fundamental agreement with you. A factor you omit is that many people live outside city limits to get away from Ann Arbor government and its idiocies.

    “NIMBY”s are simply people defending their homes, neighborhoods and quality of life from name-calling bigots who don’t care whose homes they wreck. Notice that few of the people calling others “NIMBY” live in the places they propose to wreck. It’s always easy to demolish someone else’s neighborhood

    As to Mr. Leinberger’s comment that “In the 1950s, 50% of households had children – today, only 33% do, and in the next few decades that percentage will drop even more. “The demographics are telling us something,” the demographics tell us that we are a place in decline. Sustainability is about not needing to import outside resources to survive. This begins with people.

  11. By LiberalNIMBY
    February 19, 2010 at 1:42 pm | permalink

    @10 “Sustainability is about not needing to import outside resources to survive. This begins with people.”

    While my comment is off-topic, I think this is an important statement. I assume this crystallizes your position on whether we should share our city with any more residents, no matter where their homes are or whether these new homes replace other structures or are built on vacant land. The corollary to this is that other places (townships, rural areas, other cities) should get the people who might otherwise would like to live here.

    I assume you are for zero population growth (right?). However, the US population is expected to grow under most scenarios [link], and even when it does begin a slow decline, it is not unreasonable to expect certain healthy institutions and industries (education, medicine) will cause some places (like Ann Arbor) to continue to face increased pressure for additional residential development. What do we do if there are more people who want to live here? I see your comment about people living in the townships to escape Ann Arbor’s “idiocies,” but seriously: Should we put more people in the position to commute in?

    If we were living in a place that was far from fresh water and farmland, I might concur with your spin on sustainability. I don’t believe this is the case here, however. (There is a lot we should be doing to prepare ourselves locally for when cheap energy goes away, but throwing our jobs-housing balance further out of whack and forcing more car commuting is going in the other direction.)

    I’m curious: If it could be demonstrated that having additional residents would slow the growth in the per-capita cost burden for all residents for the foreseeable future (sharing the maintenance of current and additional infrastructure, parks, transit, city workers, etc.), would you still be against having more people living here and contributing their tax dollars? Let’s ignore the impact on the environment, schools, non-profits and local businesses for the moment so as not to muddy the water.

  12. By Jack Eaton
    February 19, 2010 at 3:09 pm | permalink

    @ #11. Continuing with your off topic discussion, it doesn’t matter whether John is for or against population growth. The fact is that we are losing population, both in Michigan and in Ann Arbor.

    The US Census representative who attended the AA Dems meeting last Saturday said estimates are that Ann Arbor will have lost 1,000 residents from year 2000 to year 2010. I think that for the first half of that decade we probably gained population, so that means in the last few years we have lost more than 1,000 residents. This is not hard to believe. We have an unemployment rate of about 10%, so those really in need of a job will leave for opportunities that do not exist in Michigan.

    You say “Let’s ignore the impact on the environment, schools, non-profits and local businesses for the moment so as not to muddy the water.” But assuming away the downside does not mean you have demonstrated that there is no downside. It merely means you choose to exclude data from your analysis.

    The current city council “money & buildings” majority has significantly increased the per capita cost of government through a series of ill conceived borrowing and building schemes. The vacancy rates in retail, office and residential properties demonstrate that there is no market demand for the developments favored by density theorist who clamor for bigger, taller and denser development.

    Rather than induce dense development for which there is little demand, we should balance our city budget, fix our roads and bridges and maintain our police and fire staffing. If we address the basics, businesses will come to Ann Arbor for the 47% percent of our adult population who have a college degree or more. Until then, we should stop pretending that we can increase our population merely by adding to the surplus of buildings we already have.

  13. By mr dairy
    February 20, 2010 at 10:49 am | permalink

    Now and more so in the future when people look for a place to live, work or play, will they base their choices on the profile of the downtown skyline or the condition of the schools, neighborhoods and public infrastructure?

    Well, said, Jack!

  14. By LiberalNIMBY
    February 22, 2010 at 11:19 am | permalink

    Developers are in the business of making money by building things. They build them when their information tells them there’s a demand; trying to outguess them isn’t my or your business and is a distraction. I could jump in and state that UM is going to fund an additional 1,000 scientists over the next 10 years. Is this productive?

    I’m all for balancing the budget, fixing potholes, and making sure our fire and police are at minimum levels for outstanding service. These services are getting more expensive every year, so is this being used as an argument to prohibit more people from living here and helping to pay for these services? The more people there are within a defined geographic area, the cheaper these services become per capita (or, perhaps, the costs don’t rise as quickly, more likely).

    And to answer Mr. Dairy’s question: Who is going to move to Ann Arbor? Well, even in the boom years, almost nobody did. You talk about fixing infrastructure: who the heck is going to pay for that? Certainly not people who are sitting on their absurd Hedley zero-property-tax windfalls. They could care less what kind of taxes people are paying when property taxes are uncapped. We need more property and business taxes.

    And I was trying be generous by ignoring “the impact on the environment, schools, non-profits and local businesses” because if you asked anyone in the HRWC, AAPS, the Michigan Theater, or any business downtown if we should allow more people to live in the city limits, guess what their answer would be?

    I’m waiting for a compelling argument as to why more people shouldn’t be allowed to live here. let alone why we shouldn’t be doing everything in our power to encourage them to do so. (This doesn’t have to be 25-story buildings, mind you, but I am pretty sick of Tower Plaza being our skyline.)

  15. February 22, 2010 at 12:41 pm | permalink

    I’m confused as to what LiberalNIMBY is actually espousing. More development? The market doesn’t support it. Where does it say that we are not “allowing people to live here”? There are rental vacancies and unsold condominiums all over. People will live where employment and other economic factors permit. Of course there is also an element of personal preference and presumably Ann Arbor does attract residents, especially retirees, because of its amenities and attractions.

    I’m also confused by “people who are sitting on their absurd Hedley zero-property-tax windfalls”. What does that mean? I assume that “Hedley” actually refers to Headlee – with regard to property tax it means a reduction in millage rate each year, but not zero tax, as far as I know. Or could the writer actually be referring to Proposition A (1994) that capped the rise in taxable value to 5% or the rate of inflation (whichever is less). But that is not zero tax either. In fact, many are seeing their taxes continuing to rise even as the assessed value of their homes decreases.

  16. By abc
    February 22, 2010 at 2:28 pm | permalink

    The following were clipped from the last few posts:

    “…the demographics tell us that we are a place in decline.”

    “The fact is that we are losing population, both in Michigan and in Ann Arbor.”

    “The US Census representative who attended the AA Dems meeting last Saturday said estimates are that Ann Arbor will have lost 1,000 residents from year 2000 to year 2010.”

    “Who is going to move to Ann Arbor? Well, even in the boom years, almost nobody did.”

    For those reading along each of the above statements have problems with clarity, or are wrong.

    The U. S. Census has the state of Michigan estimated with a population INCREASE of .7% from 2000 to 2008. While it may be true that ‘Ann Arbor’ (meaning the City of Ann Arbor only) has lost 1,000 residents, Washtenaw County has an estimated increase of 7.6%. While I could not find population estimates for all the townships surrounding the City of Ann Arbor from 2000 to 2008 (the years through which the U. S. Census has estimated) historically for the last 30 or 40 years the majority of the growth in the Ann Arbor metropolitan area has been in Pittsfield, Scio, and Ypsilanti Townships. The U. S. census estimates that Pittsfield Township has had 23% growth (2000 to 2008) and Ypsilanti Township is flat. Scio Township’s numbers are not available.

    The City of Ann Arbor’s population had steady growth from the 1800’s until 1970 and has remained fairly constant since 1970 at around 100,000 people. Since the 1970’s the townships surrounding the City of Ann Arbor has grown steadily; particularly in the boom years.

    I offer these numbers in contrast to the quotes above.

    Mr. Eaton prefaces a recommendation with, “Rather than induce dense development for which there is little demand…” There may be ‘little demand’ today, due to very recent economic events, but the same argument was made to block projects prior to the economic meltdown.

    In many ways we may have missed the boat on balancing our city’s density and the quality of its environment. Had this been the focus in the 1970’s and 80’s it would have been easier and we would have a much better city and region.

  17. February 22, 2010 at 3:13 pm | permalink

    A couple of observations about the prior post:

    1. Early growth of the city of Ann Arbor was doubtless due to annexation. The State Boundary Commission was authorized in 1968 and protections for townships against annexation by cities was considerably strengthened in 1978. Until recently the city still had many “township islands” which are now mostly being absorbed into the city but as part of the agreement that was reached 10 years ago or so between the city and its surrounding townships, no further outward growth of the city is occurring.

    2. Growth of the townships in 2000-2008 was coincident with the housing bubble. This sprawl growth was a result, in my opinion, of people moving into Washtenaw County to enjoy relatively lower costs of owning a large house on a large lot. Increased numbers of residences (whether through smaller lots or taller buildings) in the city would not in itself have enticed those particular new residents.

    Sorry to have started (and continued) this off-topic discussion.

    February 22, 2010 at 10:26 pm | permalink

    I’ll clarify my confusing post–sorry for the misunderstandings. I guess you could say I am “for” development within our city limits as long as it’s in a manner that’s permitted by plan and code and that doesn’t recklessly disrupt neighborhoods. (This obviously gets to be a tricky question in some areas, and change is clearly a disruption, but I think our city’s professional staff should have the last word on these decisions and not politicians.)

    If developers want to build new buildings (the current credit crunch and depression notwithstanding), that’s the best signal we have that some people have a need to live in homes or locations that aren’t being met. There will always be vacancies in even the healthiest markets.

    My original post was in reaction to a statement that I interpreted as, “We should not allow more people to live here.” My position is that we should absolutely encourage more people to live here. It seems that between the economy and high-rise construction costs, the high-end condo and luxury rental market is tapped out. I think we have to find ways to plan for the construction of lower-rise dense structures if people want to live in them.

    (Please ignore the Headlee/Prop A hyperbole–that’s from my unrelated frustration with our land taxation system and even further afield from my already tangential quest.)