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.
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.
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]