PAC Softens Stance on Fuller Road Station

Concerns remain on public process, financial deal with UM

Ann Arbor Park Advisory Commission working session (June 1, 2010): Members of the Ann Arbor Park Advisory Commission took another crack at drafting a resolution regarding the proposed Fuller Road Station, softening some of the language that had previously called for city council to abandon the project. The station includes a large parking structure, bus depot and possible train station for commuter rail, to be built in partnership with the University of Michigan near the UM medical complex.

The changes are in response to a plea for unity by mayor John Hieftje, who had attended PAC’s May 18 meeting where he spoke with commissioners for an hour about their concerns. He told commissioners that the city has a better chance of getting federal funding for the project if they show a united front.

PAC members have been concerned that if the project moves forward, the city would receive less revenue from UM for parking than it currently gets from the surface lots it leases to the university on Fuller Road. Those revenues support the city’s park operations. Among other issues, some commissioners are also troubled that the structure is to be built on land that’s designated as parkland, and that there’s been limited opportunity for public input.

Immediately following a June 1 meeting of PAC’s land acquisition committee, which includes all members of the commission, PAC members stayed for a working session on the Fuller Road Station. Chair Julie Grand brought a revised resolution to consider, and the group thrashed through issues and language to come up with a draft that will be discussed at PAC’s June 15 regular meeting.

In addition, commissioner Tim Berla plans to propose an alternative resolution, which he emailed to other PAC members on Monday. His resolution focuses on process – asking that the city council and staff be fully transparent in providing details about the agreement to the public.

Fuller Road Station: Some Background

PAC commissioners have addressed the Fuller Road Station in different ways over the past several months. They’ve heard presentations from city staff, but have not been asked officially for input on the project. Its first phase is a proposed structure, located on city-owned land south of Fuller Road and east of East Medical Center Drive, that would have roughly 1,000 parking spaces, with nearly 80% of those designated for UM’s use.

At PAC’s April 20, 2010 meeting, commissioner Gwen Nystuen proposed forming a committee to evaluate the project. But instead of acting on her proposal at that meeting, commissioners agreed to discuss it at their May 4 land acquisition committee meeting. By then, however, Nystuen, Grand and Sam Offen had come up with a different approach – a resolution that asked council to either halt the project, or to negotiate with UM for higher payments to use the parking structure. [See Chronicle coverage: "Better Deal Desired for Fuller Road Station"] The resolution they drafted was brought for consideration at PAC’s May 18 meeting. [.pdf of original resolution]

With PAC possibly poised to pass the resolution, Hieftje appeared at the May 18 meeting to urge them not to take that stance. From Chronicle coverage:

Hieftje described a discussion on Friday, May 14, that was organized by Congressman John Dingell and focused on high-speed rail funding for this region. The media event included Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman, Congressman Mark Schauer, Deputy Secretary of Transportation John Porcari, and Dearborn mayor Jack O’Reilly, among others. Hieftje said he’d also talked with U.S. Sen. Carl Levin during the May 2 UM commencement ceremonies, saying that Levin expressed support for Fuller Road Station and the possibility of commuter rail.

There’s a “lively” negotiation going on between Amtrak and Norfolk Southern, Hieftje said – Norfolk Southern is interested in selling the rail line that runs through Ann Arbor, and Amtrak is interested in buying. He said that he and Eli Cooper, the city’s transportation program manager, emerged from Friday’s discussion very enthused about the possibility of federal funding for high-speed rail – and track improvements for high-speed rail would be the same ones needed for commuter rail, he said. “Rail transit coming to our region is inevitable.”

Ann Arbor is applying for about $40 million in federal funding for Fuller Road Station, Hieftje said, adding that he would very much like the city to present a “cohesive and unified effort” to bring rail to this community. There’s no other location that offers the synergy and impact of the Fuller Road site, he said. It’s near a concentrated employment center, which might bring even more jobs in the future. Rail transit holds tremendous potential for providing easier access to Detroit Metro airport, as well as for development in downtown Ypsilanti, he said.

The rail project could take years to unfold – it could take a decade, Hieftje said. And even if commuter rail doesn’t happen, the high-speed rail will, he said, giving this region something that every other major metro area in the country has. [Hieftje later clarified in an email to The Chronicle that he intended to say that every major metro area in the country has commuter rail.]

He told commissioners that he had read their resolution. If PAC wanted the city to drive a harder bargain with the university, then he would appreciate their support of the Fuller Road Station project.

At that meeting, commissioners discussed the project with Hieftje, asking questions and airing a range of concerns: among them, the fact that it seemed unclear whether the train station would ever be built; safety issues related to increased traffic at the site; a loss of revenue to the parks system if the university ends up paying less for parking at the Fuller Road Station than it currently pays for the city’s surface lots; and a lack of public input.

Later in the meeting, after Hieftje left, PAC members discussed the resolution itself and ultimately moved to table it, with Grand offering to bring a revised version to their June 1 land acquisition committee meeting for further discussion.

Fuller Road Station: A “Vision Quest”?

At the June 1 working session, Julie Grand began the discussion by assuring fellow commissioners that she wanted honest feedback about the revised resolution, saying “no one can offend me.” Her goal was to get close to consensus on the language, so that they wouldn’t need to wordsmith the resolution at the regular PAC meeting on June 15, when they’ll likely take a vote.

She said in general she’d tried to soften the language, and had removed some of the more pointed statements. For example, the new version removed the resolved clause recommending that the city council not approve plans for the Fuller Road Station at the proposed site. Instead, a new resolved clause indicated general support for the goals of an intermodal transit station, but stated that there were concerns about the overall benefit to park users if the project remained as a standalone parking structure.

David Barrett said he was trying to get a sense of process, to figure out if the project as currently configured was unstoppable, like “a boulder rolling down the hill.” He also feared that if the proposal were done in phases – the first phase being a large parking structure, with a bus depot, bike racks and taxi stand – then the second phase of a train station might be a “vision quest” that never materializes. He noted that the mayor said the city is trying to encourage Amtrak to participate, with the hopes that by building the structure, the train station would eventually be relocated from its Depot Street site to the Fuller Road Station. But at this point, that still a leap of faith, Barrett said.

Grand pointed out that although Fuller Road Station is a major focus of the mayor’s office, support might change depending on the outcome of the August primary elections. [Hieftje is being challenged in the Democratic primary by Patricia Lesko. A section about the project on her campaign website states "If U of M wants that land, we’ll negotiate a price in the best interest of the taxpayers, and Ann Arbor voters can decide whether to sell the parcel or not." Currently the city does not intend to sell the land to the university – rather, a memorandum of understanding between the city and UM states that the university would pay 78% of the cost to build the $46 million structure, and would pay additional amounts each year to use that proportion of the parking spaces. .pdf file of memorandum of understanding between Ann Arbor and UM]

Gwen Nystuen noted that the architectural drawings are very detailed and nearly complete for the parking structure, but have not been done for a train station – making it less clear that the station would actually be built.

Tim Berla weighed in, saying the issues seem to be 1) whether the location is right for a train station, 2) whether a parking structure benefits parks, which seems dubious, and 3) how the process is being handled. It seems that from the city’s perspective, he said, the belief is that in order to get financing for a train station, the parking structure needs to be part of the project. And if the city says it’s not going to move forward with the project at all until financing is in place, they won’t get any federal dollars.

Berla said he was okay with that approach, as long as things are transparent. If people know what the details of the project are – including the financing – they’ll be able to decide whether to support it.

Grand asked whether everyone agreed that if the project ends up being only a parking structure, then that’s not a benefit to the parks. Barrett said he could make the case that if the structure brought in a significant revenue stream because of payments from the university, then that could be a value to the parks system.

Colin Smith, the city’s parks manager, noted that at the May 18 meeting, the mayor had indicated that one possible benefit to building Fuller Road Station is that it might free up the surface lots on the other side of Fuller Road, which could possibly be returned to green space. Smith said that from the staff’s perspective, there’s no benefit to that – the parking lots on the north side of Fuller would still be needed for patrons of Fuller Park Pool. And if UM doesn’t lease those lots – which it doesn’t plan to do, after Fuller Road Station is built – then the parks system will lose about $38,000 of annual revenue.

Berla came back to the issue of process. He said he wanted to urge council to put all their cards on the table. For example, could the city have set a higher rate for the parking services agreement with UM on those existing Fuller Road surface lots?

Nystuen reviewed the history of the parking agreement with UM, dating back to 1993. Smith confirmed that the original agreement, signed in 1993, was a 15-year deal that expired in 2008. It was renewed but is set to expire in August 2010. [.pdf of current agreement for Fuller Road parking lots leased by UM and .pdf of fee schedule]

When Berla asked whether the city could charge a higher rate, Smith said that was a possibility. Nystuen noted that the city could rent the parking spaces for a “pretty sum.”

Berla said his point was that whatever the agreement, he wanted it to be “way out in the open.” He observed that it seems the parking services agreement won’t be determined until after the Fuller Road Station project has been approved, which “seems like an odd way to do business.”

Smith noted that Hieftje has indicated there might be other opportunities for revenue as part of the project. That might come from agreements with other entities to use Fuller Road Station, like bus or taxicab companies. When Barrett remarked that this is part of the mayor’s “sell,” Doug Chapman said that the “sell” was also the need to give the appearance of unity.

Barrett said that the original version of the resolution had at least resulted in the mayor coming and talking to them. Smith responded by saying that the reality is there’s a memorandum of understanding between the city and the university about the project. PAC members now need to figure out what they want to recommend to the city council going forward.

Nystuen urged the group to ask the council for a clear project timeline, to note that the finances don’t make sense as they stand, and that it’s not acceptable at that location, which she described as the city’s Central Park. If the city didn’t already own the land, she said, they’d want to buy it for the parks system.

Berla was in favor of a shorter resolution, one that simply asked council to make available specific details about the project so that the public could have the information and PAC could hold a public hearing on it.

Smith passed out a timeline he’d received from Dave Dykman, a project manager for the city. The dates were struck out because they’d been pushed back and not yet finalized, he noted. But it gave commissioners a sense of the process, he said, and of the length of time that would occur between these events.

Fuller Road Station Phase 1 Preliminary Project Schedule

  • June 2, 2010: City of Ann Arbor Citizen Participation Meeting #4
  • June 15, 2010: City of Ann Arbor Park Advisory Commission Update
  • June 14, 2010: Petition Package Submitted to City Planning & Development Services Unit
  • June 15 – June 25, 2010: Petition Package Review by City Staff
  • June 28 – July 7, 2010: Petition Package Revisions by Petitioner
  • July 8 – July 14, 2010: Petition Package Final Review (verification that Petitioner addressed all comments)
  • July 14 – August 2, 2010: City Planning Commission Public Hearing Notice Period; Staff Report Prepared
  • August 3, 2010: City Planning Commission Public Hearing and Recommendation of Approval
  • August 18 – 25, 2010: City Planning Commission Recommendation Forwarded to City Council via Resolution
  • August 30 – Sept 13, 2010: City Council Public Hearing Notice Period
  • September 13, 2010: City Council Work Session
  • September 19, 2010: City Council Caucus Meeting
  • September 20, 2010: City Council Public Hearing and Approval of Resolution
  • September 16, 2010: U of M Board of Regents Schematic Design Approval
  • January 20, 2011: U of M Board of Regents Approval to Bid and Award Construction Contracts
  • July 2010 – January 2011: Site Preparation and Utility Relocation by City
  • February 2011 – Summer 2012: Fuller Road Station Phase 1 Construction

Smith noted that a public hearing will be held when the planning commission reviews the project’s site plan, and another one will be held by the city council before they vote on it.

Grand pointed out that even though PAC raised the issue of public input, there’s nothing on the timeline to indicate a public hearing at PAC. Karen Levin wondered whether the city will say that there were public meetings – city staff held informational sessions in September 2009, and in February and May of 2010. Grand said she attended one and that it was set up as a presentation plus Q&A, but not a chance for meaningful public input. [For Chronicle coverage of the Feb. 10, 2010 public meeting, see "Fleshing Out Fuller Road Station"] Another public meeting originally planned for June 2 was canceled, but is expected to be rescheduled.

Berla noted that it seemed the site plan is slated for approval before a parking agreement would be in place – if so, that’s a process problem, he said. If PAC wants to have a public hearing, he added, then details of the site plan and the parking agreement should be made available to the public first.

Barrett highlighted the role that PAC had been charged with as a commission – its job is to protect the parks financially, he said. Saying that he had a lot of trust and faith in Hieftje, Barrett added that with the way the current process is set for the Fuller Road Station, PAC is not able to do its job. They’ve been told that if they do their job – namely, if they try to protect the financial interests of the park system – then the project might not get financing.

Chapman said that for him, it’s always been about the financial aspect. And it wasn’t clear to him whether the city approached the university, or whether the university had come to the city about the project. Grand noted that UM was building a new women’s and children’s hospital, set to open in 2011, with no additional parking. “That was a really stupid thing to do,” she said. The parks system should take advantage of that, she said – it could be used as leverage in negotiating the parking services agreement.

Fuller Road Station: PAC’s Revised Resolution

Part of the June 1 meeting was spent going over Grand’s draft resolution line by line. Several of the “whereas” clauses were removed, to be added to an accompanying cover memo.

The most significant changes were made in the “resolved” clauses. The original version proposed at the May 18 meeting had just two “resolved” clauses:

Resolved, that PAC recommends that the City Council does not proceed in its approval of plans for the Fuller Road Station at the site where it is currently proposed.

Resolved, that if such plans are approved by Council, that the agreement with the University of Michigan is renegotiated to include a significant increase in revenue allocated to the Parks and Recreation Department. 100% of payments should come from the University of Michigan. Revenue at the current FY 2010 rate of approximately $125 per space would result in an annual payment of between $100,000 and $127,500 to the Parks Department.

The revised version considerably expanded the “resolved” clauses, and notably eliminated the request for council not to proceed with the project. Grand noted that the first “resolved” clause in the new version was “as far as I could go to respond to the mayor’s request for support.” From the revised resolution:

Resolved, that while PAC is generally in favor of the goals of an intermodal transit station, concerns remain about the overall benefit to park users of the proposed Fuller Road Station as a stand-alone Phase One project.

Resolved, that if such plans are approved, PAC urges Council to negotiate the final agreement with the University of Michigan to include a significant increase in revenue to the Parks and Recreation Department above and beyond that currently agreed upon in the MOU [memorandum of understanding]. Further, PAC recommends that the final agreement should indemnify the Parks and Recreation Department for any shortfall in revenue caused by the University’s decision to discontinue leasing the North lots on Fuller Road.

Resolved, PAC recommends that the final Parking Services Agreement will be published at least two weeks prior to Council approval of the proposed FRS.

Resolved, PAC recommends that all revenue generated from lessees of the proposed transit center should be dedicated exclusively to the Parks and Recreation Department.

Resolved, PAC requests that project staff will present PAC with a clear project schedule for the proposed FRS, with future updates as necessary.

Resolved, that an effort be made by project staff to provide opportunities for PAC and the public to give meaningful input into all future significant decisions regarding the proposed FRS.

This version, along with a cover memo, will be discussed at PAC’s June 15 meeting. [.pdf file of revised draft resolution]

Alternative Resolution: Focus on Transparency

At the June 1 meeting, Berla told his fellow commissioners that he thought a resolution should focus on clarifying and opening up the process. He elaborated on that in an email he sent to PAC members on June 7: “My feeling is that if we can make sure that the public really understands the specifics of this project, then the city council will be fully accountable for whatever decisions it reaches. If, after getting this information PAC wants to pass a resolution opposing or supporting the project, we will be able to do so at that time. Right now, I feel that there are still a lot of details, most notably the final Parking Services Agreement, that are not clear to me, and thus I can’t say whether I support the overall project or not.”

Berla’s proposed resolution reads:

Whereas the Parks Advisory Commission (PAC) supports the establishment of an intermodal transportation station in Ann Arbor to promote the development of alternative transportation, and,

Whereas PAC’s duties include providing a forum for advice and public input to the city council on matters relating to the park system, and,

Whereas the construction of any building for non-park use on park land is a large and potentially precedent setting development, and,

Whereas the parks department currently receives revenue from the University of Michigan for parking in lots located within Fuller park, and any change to that revenue may impact the already stretched parks budget,

Be it therefor resolved that PAC urges the city council and staff to promote maximum transparency in the development of any such project. Specifically, PAC urges the staff and council to make public a complete plan for the development of the projet, including which features will be part of each phase and the details of any significant agreements such as the Parking Services Agreement. Further, PAC urges that such publication include a full presentation at a regular televised PAC meeting, in such a way that PAC commissioners have an opportunity to ask questions, and that this PAC meeting be at least one month prior to any city council vote which could commit the city to building on park land.

Public Commentary

The June 1 meeting was held at Cobblestone Farm, and one person from the public attended. Nancy Kaplan told commissioners that she appreciated their efforts and agonizing over the resolution, but that the focus seemed to be on price and information – how much the university should pay, and how much information the city should provide to the public. She hadn’t heard any discussion about the fact that this would set a precedent for the use of parkland – that seems to be getting lost, she said, and it troubled her.

Kaplan said her understanding is that there’s no architectural drawing of the train station. So what PAC is really supporting is a huge parking structure, she said. It benefits UM, she said, but she didn’t see how it benefits the city. It’s not clear why there’s a rush to do the project, Kaplan concluded – why not wait until the entire project, including the train station, is designed?

Present: David Barrett, Tim Berla, Doug Chapman, Julie Grand, Karen Levin, Gwen Nystuen. Also Colin Smith, city parks manager.

Absent: John Lawter, Sam Offen, councilmember Mike Anglin (ex-officio) and councilmember Christopher Taylor (ex-officio)

Next meeting: PAC’s meeting on Tuesday, June 15 begins at 4 p.m. at the studios of Community Television Network, 2805 S. Industrial Highway. [confirm date]