Park Commission Asks for Transparency

Resolution on Fuller Road Station also aims to guard revenues

Ann Arbor Park Advisory Commission meeting (June 15, 2010): A temporary venue change led more than two dozen people to the Community Television Network studios for this month’s PAC meeting.

Colin Smith, Tim Doyle

Colin Smith, left, the city's parks and recreation manager, talks with Tim Doyle, who was attending his first meeting as a new park advisory commissioner. Doyle replaced the position formerly occupied by Scott Rosencrans, who did not seek reappointment. (Photos by the writer.)

The main agenda item was consideration of two resolutions regarding Fuller Road Station, and many people who attended the meeting were there to address commissioners on that topic – most of them protesting the use of city parkland for what will, at least initially, be a large parking structure and bus depot, built in partnership with the University of Michigan.

Park commissioners have expressed concerns about the project, and resolutions were crafted to address those issues, including a possible financial loss to the parks system and a lack of transparency in the process.

At several points during deliberations, Christopher Taylor – a city councilmember and ex-officio member of PAC – defended the process, indicating that while it was a misstep that PAC wasn’t formally asked for input, there had been many opportunities for public participation.

PAC ultimately approved a resolution that asks city council to make available a complete plan of Fuller Road Station – including any significant proposed agreements, such as what the university will pay the city for use of the structure – allowing sufficient time for a presentation at a televised PAC meeting before council votes on the project. The resolution also asks that staff and council ensure the project results in a net revenue gain for the parks system.

Several other speakers during public commentary addressed the issue of Huron Hills Golf Course, and expressed concerns that the city would seek to privatize it. During his manager’s report, Colin Smith told commissioners that a draft request for proposals (RFP) regarding Huron Hills won’t be finished until August at the earliest, and will be brought to PAC for review before being issued by the city.

The meeting also included a presentation by Molly Notarianni, the city’s market manager, with an update on the farmers market and public market activities.

Tuesday’s meeting was also the first for PAC’s newest commissioner, Tim Doyle. Doyle was recently appointed by city council to replace Scott Rosencrans, who did not seek reappointment. In welcoming him, PAC chair Julie Grand joked: “You picked a good one to start.”

Fuller Road Station: PAC Weighs In

For several months, the commission has discussed concerns about the Fuller Road Station, proposed for the south side of Fuller Road, just east of East Medical Center Drive. The project is proposed for a site that’s currently a surface parking lot on land designated as parkland, but PAC was not asked to make a formal recommendation on it. Among other issues, many commissioners expressed dismay that the parks system – which currently receives revenues from surface parking lots on parkland along Fuller Road that’s leased to the university – could see a decrease in revenues after Fuller Road Station is built.

Originally, PAC considered a resolution that called for the city council to abandon the effort, or at the least to get a better deal from the university. [Chronicle coverage: "Better Deal Desired for Fuller Road Station"] That caught the attention of mayor John Hieftje, an advocate of the project, who attended PAC’s May 18, 2010 meeting and asked commissioners for their support. [Chronicle coverage: "Hieftje Urges Unity on Fuller Road Station"]

His request led commissioners to reconsider their position, dropping a call to stop the project but still urging city council to work for a more open process and to ensure a better financial deal to benefit the parks system. [Chronicle coverage: "PAC Softens Stance on Fuller Road Station"]

On Tuesday, PAC considered two resolutions, and heard from several members of the public.

Fuller Road Station: Public Commentary

Glenn Thompson described how he used to travel frequently along Fuller Road between the university’s north campus and its main campus, noting that much of the land along that route was city parkland. Taxpayers should control the sale and long-term use of parkland, he said. That’s what they are promised in the city charter, and that’s what they expect. He encouraged PAC, as stewards of the parks, to keep that promise and to vote against anything that encourages the transfer of land without a voter referendum.

James D’Amour said that despite Eli Cooper’s spin to the contrary, Fuller Road Station primary role is to have 900-plus parking spaces dedicated to automotive commuters. [Cooper is the city's transportation program manager.] D’Amour described the greatest reach of Jim Kosteva’s career as thinking people were stupid enough to accept the spin that the project is a step toward sustainability. D’Amour said he supports public transportation and the east/west rail. But it doesn’t matter if a cause is noble or ignoble – if there’s a change in the status of parkland, it requires a public vote.

Whether it’s Fuller Road Station or Huron Hills Golf Course, disposing of parkland by any means should be decided by a public vote, D’Amour said. If the parking structure and the deal are good for the city, it shouldn’t be a problem getting voter approval, he said. Speak to the voters and state the case. To not do so and to pass the parkland into other hands sets a terrible precedent. The resolution that PAC should pass, he said, should call for no more action on Fuller Road Station or Huron Hills Golf Course without a public vote.

Ethel Potts noted that there hasn’t yet been a public hearing on Fuller Road Station. She’s attended at least five meetings about it, but these were presentations of information and the chance to ask questions, not to give opinions. At the most recent meeting, she reported, there had been a “little rebellion,” as several people wanted to give statements. Potts told commissioners that “for many of us, your concerns are our concerns.”

The revenues from the project won’t end up benefiting parks, Potts said – there will be some way that it will end up being used for other purposes. It’s a very inconvenient location for an intermodal station, Potts said, and it doesn’t serve the parks. It does serve the university, which is building a new hospital without sufficient parking, she noted. But it’s not good for the city to put up a parking structure to make up for UM’s planning flaws.

Saying he agreed with the previous speakers, John Satarino pointed out that the land along Fuller Road had initially been acquired from Detroit Edison in 1963. The deed indicates that the land should be used as a wildlife preserve, he said. There are a lot of complexities that haven’t been addressed and that the public doesn’t know. The land in that area formed the foundation of the parks system, and now it’s being picked apart. He urged commissioners to dig deeper into the situation. Fuller Road Station sets a bad precedent, he said. There are no restrictions now on the use of parkland, he contended. “This is a very dire situation that parks are in now,” he said, “and I’d like to see something done to make them more secure for the future.”

Members of the public at the Ann Arbor Park Advisory Commission meeting

Members of the public at the Ann Arbor Park Advisory Commission meeting, held this month at the CTN studios on South Industrial.

Sue Perry said she felt like she’s been fooled over the past few years, and is disappointed in city management, council and some of the commissioners. Residents voted in favor of a parks millage because they thought it would protect the parks. But parks aren’t being maintained – she’s embarrassed that Veterans Memorial Park looks like a ghetto. Residents also voted to protect parkland by requiring a vote on the sale of parkland, but now that’s being challenged. It’s wrong morally, politically and financially, Perry said. She’s gotten to the point where she can’t believe what she’s voting for, or what’s been promised. Perry said she’s disappointed in PAC for not protecting the parks system and for allowing it to be used and abused. She hoped they would do the right thing and vote no to the taking of parkland.

Noting that she was a former park advisory commissioner, Leslie Morris said she appreciated PAC’s efforts to protect and improve the city’s park system. She especially appreciated their efforts to hold the line on leasing parkland for the proposed Fuller Road Station. “You have been put into an impossible position,” she said. No one wants to be against mass transit. They’ve been told that there’s no other location that’s suitable, and that since the land can’t be sold, it must be leased.

Morris acknowledged that PAC was trying to work within those limitations. Morris also spoke about the possible privatization of Huron Hills Golf Course (see below), and urged commissioners to hold the line against these “raids” on parkland.

Noting that he hadn’t actually read the proposed resolution, Brad Mikus said he thought they should pass it and that it should incorporate some of the ideas that the mayor had suggested. Phase 1 (a parking structure) and Phase 2 (a train station) should be combined, he said. Net income from all contracts should be sent directly to the parks system, and the parking lots on the north side of Fuller Road should be returned to parkland.

Mikus said he didn’t like the process – while he didn’t want to say it was underhanded, it did seem kind of shady. He also said that if the project were taken to voters, it would be approved. Finally, Mikus addressed the concern about setting a precedent, saying that Fuller Road Station was just a one-time deal. He did think that future developments should include a more public process.

Rita Mitchell reminded commissioners that 81% of voters had approved the charter amendment that requires a voter referendum on the sale of parkland. What the city is contemplating with Fuller Road Station and Huron Hills Golf Course possibly violates that, she said – a long-term lease is essentially a sale. Mitchell also argued that not every park needs to generate revenue.

Fuller Road Station: A Discussion of Process

Julie Grand began the discussion by saying that her intent had been to include as many opinions as possible in the resolution, while finding common ground.

The resolution authored by Grand, Gwen Nystuen and Sam Offen had been distributed in PAC’s meeting packet. Tim Berla proposed an alternative resolution, which he distributed to commissioners at the meeting. [At a June 1 PAC working session on Fuller Road Station, Berla had indicated his intent to float an alternative resolution. See Chronicle coverage: "PAC Softens Stance on Fuller Road Station"]

Colin Smith, the city’s parks manager, described the procedure for dealing with the two resolutions. They would start with the first resolution, then Berla’s could be considered as an amendment – an amendment to replace the original in its entirety. After voting on that, they could return to consideration of the original resolution.

David Barrett asked Smith to review the process to date, which Barrett described as “bass-ackwards,” from PAC’s perspective. He wanted to make clear that PAC didn’t simply wake up one day and come up with these “haymakers.” Many commissioners have expressed the same concerns raised during public commentary, he said. Barrett also wanted to clarify that PAC had been told by Kevin McDonald of the city attorney’s office that the city didn’t have to follow its own zoning regulations – that fact should also inform the discussion, he said.

Smith reviewed the fact that while city staff had made presentations to PAC about Fuller Road Station, the commission had not been asked to make an official recommendation about it. Since the project has generated some discussion in the community, PAC has chosen to make a recommendation in the form of a resolution, which they were considering now.

Barrett then mentioned the issue of recent changes in the list of designated uses for public land, and asked Smith to review that as well. At their May 4 meeting, the city planning commission approved a change to language in Chapter 55 of the city code, which lists permitted principal uses for public land (PL). The change was to delete the use of “municipal airports” and replace it with “transportation facilities.” City council has also approved the change at first reading, and will likely take a final vote at its June 21 meeting.

Berla asked if Smith had an updated timeline for the project. The one distributed most recently had the dates crossed out. Smith said he didn’t have a new one yet, but that the site plan would first be submitted to the city planning commission, where there would be a public hearing. It would then go to city council, and there would be another public hearing. He also clarified for Berla that the project’s design hadn’t yet been completed.

Grand noted that for the planning commission, the public hearing would be conducted two weeks before the commission voted. For council, however, the last timeline she saw indicated that councilmembers would vote on the project on the same night as the public hearing.

Barrett came back to the broader question of process. He wondered who was responsible for sheparding projects like this through the city’s approval process. He presumed that council would want PAC’s feedback on this, since it directly affected parks – so he found it vexing that PAC hadn’t been asked for input. Why hadn’t that happened? Grand said they were all equally perplexed.

Taylor – one of the two councilmembers who serve as ex-officio, non-voting members of PAC – said it was clearly and universally acknowledged that the project intersected with parks. That was reflected in the fact that Eli Cooper, the city’s transportation program manager, had made a presentation to PAC several months ago to show commissioners plans for Fuller Road Station.

[See Chronicle coverage of that September 2009 meeting: "City Seeks Feedback on Transit Center" The first public presentation of the Fuller Road Station concept came at a presentation from Cooper to a group of residents at Northside Grill in early 2009: "City Staffers Brief Wall Street Neighbors"]

Under ordinary circumstances, Taylor said, PAC wouldn’t have anything to do with a site plan. So the fact that Cooper came to PAC and described the plans was a sign of respect for the commission, he said. Cooper returned as the project developed, he noted, making another presentation at PAC’s March 2010 meeting. It’s appropriate that PAC weighs in, Taylor added. It’s an unusual project, given that there are so many moving parts, including the AATA, the university, and various potential funding sources.

Barrett pointed out that the project as initially presented – with a focus on the train station – was very different from later versions, which included two phases, including a large parking structure as the first phase. He also noted concerns over the semantics being used to distinguish between a lease and a sale of the land. [A charter amendment requires that voters approve the sale of parkland. For the Fuller Road Station, the city will continue to own the land.] He asked Taylor whether council was aware that so many moving parts would create a “petri dish for misunderstanding.”

Taylor replied that with a novel project like this, there were bound to be confusions and uncertainties and fears. It’s necessary to have a mutual belief in everyone’s good faith efforts, he said, in order to find a process that will lead to a wise, long-term solution.

Sam Offen wondered, if the parks system was such an integral part of this project, why hadn’t PAC been involved in the initial discussions? Yes, there was a presentation, but PAC wasn’t asked for comment – that was disappointing, he said. It’s a precedent-setting project on a significant piece of parkland. PAC should have been asked, he said – then city council could have gone ahead and done whatever they want.

Taylor said he didn’t really know why PAC wasn’t asked – that was a misstep. But he added that he could see a counter-narrative. Cooper had made multiple presentations to PAC, where there were opportunities for commissioners to comment.

Saying she didn’t want PAC to sound like a bunch of whiners, Grand noted that the presentations were ever-shifting. That was one of the problems. Doug Chapman also commented that Cooper’s presentations seemed designed to tell PAC what was happening, not to ask their opinion.

Mike Anglin, the other councilmember on PAC, said that they needed to get documents from the city, perhaps through a Freedom of Information Act request, that showed a timeline of events dating back several years. He said he didn’t know which people in the city negotiated with UM on the project, but that it was presented as a done deal when it first came to council. Anglin noted that some people have speculated that the issue relates to the situation on Maiden Lane. [He was likely referring to UM's previous plans to build parking structures on Wall Street. See Chronicle coverage from January 2009: "City Staffers Brief Wall Street Neighbors"]

The town isn’t against an intermodal transportation center that will work, Anglin said.

Fuller Road Station: Two Resolutions

Commissioners then focused on the two resolutions. Grand began by reading the first resolution, which PAC members had discussed at their June 1 working session. [.pdf of resolution and cover memo]

Whereas, the Park Advisory Commission (PAC) has been briefed on numerous occasions about plans for the Fuller Road Station (FRS) by project managers and City staff.

Whereas, in spite of such briefings, the overall scope of the proposed project, including the timeline and decision-making process by City staff and their partners continues to change and remains unclear.

Whereas, the opportunity for direct input from the public regarding the direction and overall desirability of the FRS has not been commensurate with the scale of the proposed project.

Whereas, one of PAC’s roles is to make recommendation concerning the use of parkland.

Whereas, the City of Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan have jointly proposed building an approximately 1,020 car parking structure, which represents an increase of 770 parking spaces.

Whereas, building the proposed FRS will create a permanent structure on parkland.

Whereas, the Parks and Recreation Department currently receives $31, 057 (FY 2010) annually from the University of Michigan for 250 parking spots in the South Lot, and according to the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the University is slated to receive only $24,846 with a 3% yearly increase for almost 800 spots following completion of the proposed parking structure in 2012.

Whereas, it is unlikely that the University of Michigan will continue to lease the North Lots on Fuller Road following the completion of the proposed parking garage, resulting in an additional annual loss to the Parks budget of approximately $38,495 (FY 2010).

Whereas, the potential loss of revenue (totaling $44,706 in FY 2010 dollars) from the University of Michigan will result in the Parks and Recreation Department having to make additional cuts to an already stretched and shrinking budget.

Whereas, according to its terms, and pursuant to information presented to PAC, the November 2009 MOU is not a final agreement with the University of Michigan, including its terms with respect to compensation to the Parks and Recreation Department.

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 C-1a MOU. 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.

When Grand finished reading the resolution, John Lawter said he would be abstaining from discussion and voting because of his position with the university. [Lawter is UM associate director of building services and grounds.]

Berla began the discussion, saying that he’s in general agreement with the content of the resolution. However, he felt it went into too much detail regarding some of the information that hasn’t been formally presented to them. He also wanted it to be clear that zoning ordinances don’t prevent this project from going through, and that the charter amendment specifically states that voters must approve the sale of land. That wasn’t the case with Fuller Road Station – the land wasn’t being sold.

He directed some of his comments to the people who were attending the meeting and who spoke during public commentary. They voted for mayor and city council, and they’d be voting again – that’s the democratic process, he said. If they felt that the use of land, as it’s being handled with Fuller Road Station, should be taken to the voters for approval, they should make that clear.

His own resolution aimed to simplify the recommendation to council, and focused on asking council to provide all the information related to Fuller Road Station before taking action on it, so that PAC and the public could weigh in after they were fully informed. The resolution also made clear that they wanted the council to protect the financial interests of the parks. Berla’s resolution reads as follows:

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 therefore 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 project, 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.

Be it further resolved that PAC urges the city council and staff to ensure that any use of the land in Fuller Park for non-park uses such as a transit station or parking structure results in a net increase in park system revenue.

Nystuen said she didn’t find the two resolutions in conflict. She wanted to see most of Berla’s resolution incorporated into the original one. Acknowledging that the city didn’t have to follow its own ordinances, she said she was very concerned that it was breaking its own code. The city has spent years developing valuable parkland along the river. Even though the site is now a surface parking lot, it’s still serving the interests of parks, she said. Fuller Road Station will be an outside use, taking it out of the hands of the parks system. The city is breaking its own code, but is also breaking a pact with the residents, she said. It’s important to lay out the details, as the first resolution does, she said.

Barrett noted that Berla’s resolution focused on process, while the original resolution was more nuanced and detailed. He asked Taylor and Anglin whether the details would be useful to councilmembers. Taylor said he didn’t view the resolutions as deeply different. Smith pointed out that the resolution will include a cover memo, which outlines many of the issues, in somewhat clearer language.

Barrett asked Taylor whether the council’s rationale for the project was based on the fact that the arrangement was a lease rather than a sale of land. Taylor said that it wasn’t a lease – it was a “use agreement” between the city and the university, or other entities like AATA. It’s proposed to be a city-owned and operated asset, he said. Barrett called the lease/use agreement issue a distinction without a difference.

Taylor described the project as both tangible and aspirational. The university has the money and the certainty, while the rail portion of Fuller Road Station is more aspirational – it’s not in their control. So are they being foolish and rainbow-chasing, or prescient? That’s what complicates the public discussion, Taylor said.

Offen said he was impressed by the positive tone of Berla’s resolution – it was good to say what they wanted rather than what they didn’t want. The big issue for parks is that they don’t want to lose money on the deal. So there’s the financial aspect, as well as the issue of whether they want to use parkland for this purpose. Offen said he thought it would be wise for them to use Berla’s resolution.

Tim Doyle asked what timeline they were working under. He knew that when federal grants are involved, there are deadlines to meet. [There was general consensus among commissioners that it's unclear what the timelines are.] Then Doyle asked whether there was any urgency for PAC to make a decision. Given what he described as confusion around the table, perhaps it would be better to wait, Doyle said.

Grand said that it was absolutely time to make a decision, if they wanted to affect the process. Smith pointed to the memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the university and the city, which states that “the City and the University shall cooperate and use their best efforts to complete construction of Phase One, and to have Phase One ready for use, by June 15, 2012.” Working backwards from that date, he said, they’d need to begin construction by next spring, which means that designs would need to be ready fairly soon. “It’s closer than you might think,” he said.

Grand noted that the project is “ever-changing,” and if they waited until they had all the information or final answers to their questions, the opportunity for input will have passed.

Nystuen asked whether they could simply pass both resolutions. Offen suggested putting the language of the first resolution into the cover memo, then passing Berla’s version. Grand stressed that there’s no guarantee that people will read the cover memo, and that it’s the resolution that is the official record. She also suggested that it was more powerful to have just one resolution.

Taylor suggested that they pass Berla’s resolution, but amend it to include some of the whereas clauses from the original one. “I’d go for that,” Nystuen said.

A vote was taken on amending the first resolution by substituting in Berla’s version in its entirety. It was approved by a 5 to 3 vote, with Lawter abstaining. Voting yes were Berla, Barrett, Doyle, Nystuen, and Offen.

Nystuen then moved to amend Berla’s version by deleting the fourth whereas clause and adding the final five whereas clauses from the original version. That motion carried, with dissent from Berla.

Chapman pointed out that if PAC’s intent was to weigh in before any agreements between the city and university were finalized, then they should slightly alter a sentence in Berla’s second resolved clause. Berla accepted as a friendly amendment the insertion of the word “proposed”:

Specifically, PAC urges the staff and council to make public a complete plan for the development of the project, including which features will be part of each phase and the details of any significant proposed agreements such as the Parking Services Agreement.

Grand asked whether they wanted to include the sentence from the original resolution asking that the parks system be indemnified: “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.” Berla said he found that troubling, because it could be interpreted very broadly.

Taylor said he wanted to circle back to talk about the process. He noted that while there hasn’t yet been a formal public hearing, there have been 11 public conversations, or meetings, about the project. Further, the manner in which the public can express themselves to council is multi-varied, he said. Public hearings are important, but equally powerful are phone calls, emails or the “gestalt at a meeting.” So he took issue with the sentiment that there’s been no public input. It’s not been perfect, he said, but it’s been done in good faith. Except for not asking formally for PAC’s input, the process has been done pretty well, he said.

As for financing, he said, when requests are made for federal funding, matching local funds are required. The proposed university contribution is cash, he said, which would serve as the matching local funds. The city doesn’t have millions of dollars lying around to put into the project. By comparison, the university is cash wealthy, he said. That’s an element that hasn’t been completely appreciated, Taylor added, and it gives them the hope of actually getting a rail station.

Nystuen pointed out that nothing in the memorandum of understanding gives them a rail station. Taylor replied that the federal grants are predicated on there being local cash in the project – and the university is providing that cash.

Berla’s resolution, as amended, was passed unanimously, with Lawter abstaining. [.pdf of final approved resolution]

Fuller Road Station: Additional Commissioner Commentary

Later in the meeting, Nystuen said she wanted to acknowledge that they had received communication from the Washtenaw Bicycling and Walking Coalition, asking that planning for the Border-to-Border Trail be incorporated into the site design for Fuller Road Station. She also wondered about the environmental impact study that was to be done on the site – what’s the scope of that? Finally, Nystuen said she thought they should look at Peter Pollack’s plan for the site – at PAC’s March 2010 meeting, he had described an alternative approach to the design of the Fuller Road Station.

Berla said that he’d love to see a resolution at PAC’s next meeting to support the WBWC plan.

Smith noted that there were several gaps in the Border-to-Border trail that were already identified in the Park, Recreation and Open Space (PROS) plan – he thought the map submitted by WBWC was the same as the one in the PROS plan. There are other parks in the system that require trails, he said, and he cautioned against acting on that one area alone, saying they needed to look at the entire park system to assess their needs.

Doyle pointed out that if the city was seeking federal funds, it might be to their advantage to include plans for a bike path in that area.

Later in the meeting, Anglin wondered who would be bringing the resolution forward to council – he thought it was important to have some PAC members there when that happened. Taylor and others clarified that the resolution wouldn’t require action at council. Like all other PAC resolutions, it was a recommendation to council, and would be transmitted as a communication from PAC to council.

Fuller Road Station: Final Public Commentary

Three people spoke at the end of the meeting, all of them addressing the topic of Fuller Road Station.

LuAnne Bullington said the mayor had used the “carrot” of a train to get a parking garage. She said a representative from SEMCOG has indicated that the east/west rail project between Ann Arbor and Detroit is on permanent hold. There are also issues with the proposed WALLY rail line between Howell and Ann Arbor, including how it will be financed. There’s a long way to go before these rail projects become reality, and these are serious economic times.

It’s not smart to build a parking garage in hopes that a train station will be added in the next decade or two, Bullington said. Bullington also noted that the university is building a large children’s and women’s hospital, but hasn’t included additional parking for it – even though they have more money than the city does. Why is the city building a garage when its bridges are falling down? she asked, referring to the East Stadium bridges. The city’s priorities are screwed up, she said.

Glenn Thompson said that a similar situation had occurred in the village of Dexter, with elected officials moving ahead on a project that residents opposed. The result was at the next election, he said, three of the incumbents were defeated – by write-in candidates.

Ethel Potts thanked the commission, and said she felt she’d been well-represented.

Huron Hills Golf Course

During public commentary at the start of Tuesday’s meeting, several people spoke about plans for the city to issue a request for proposals (RFP) possibly to privatize the Huron Hills Golf Course, one of two golf courses owned and operated by the city. Colin Smith, the city’s parks manager, also addressed the topic during his report to commissioners, saying that the RFP hasn’t yet been developed and would likely be coming to PAC for input this fall.

Huron Hills: Public Commentary

In addition to her comments about Fuller Road Station, Leslie Morris spoke about privatizing Huron Hills, saying that she sees this proposal as a second attempt to set a precedent – “that parkland may be considered ‘surplus,’ and may be leased for some other purpose or for someone’s profit.” If the RFP is approved, she said, it’s likely to lead to others, until the precedent will be difficult to reverse. Morris said she emphatically disagrees with some in the current city administration who believe the city has too many parks. Since the council has refused to sell parkland, the administration is proposing leases as a substitute.

Morris said that when she spoke during public commentary at the city council, she called this “probing for weakness.” Supporters of the parks count on PAC to “hold the line against raids on parkland,” she said, adding “that includes private leases.”

William Cassebaum said it was just three years ago when there were talks at PAC about whether to keep Huron Hills as a golf course. The decision was made to invest in the golf course and the effort has paid off, he said, with the course never looking better. Cassebaum said he and his wife have season passes, and think of it as the “people’s course,” bringing together golfers of all ages, abilities and backgrounds. But now, he said, it seems that the city wants to eliminate Huron Hills from the parks system.

To date, the city’s RFP hasn’t been made public, Cassebaum said, but it’s reasonable to conclude that the plan is to eliminate the existing course – otherwise, why request proposals from outside businesses? He noted that in January, Jayne Miller – at that time, the city’s community services administrator – reported that two businesses had approached the city with interest in turning the front seven holes of Huron Hills into a commercial driving range.

Cassebaum reminded commissioners of the charter amendment requiring voter approval of the sale of parkland, and of a council resolution passed in 2007 that prohibited the sale of the city’s golf courses, and stating that the courses would remain in the parks system even if the golf operations stopped. [.pdf file of 2007 council resolution] Cassebaum concluded by asking: “If Huron Hills goes, what might be the next city park on the chopping block?” He asked PAC to consider recommending that council rescind the RFP.

Saying that Ann Arbor has long had a vision for its parks, Larry Argetsigner cited three examples from the Park, Recreation and Open Space (PROS) plan that relate directly to Huron Hills. He read a section from the PROS plan, which calls for “preservation of Ann Arbor’s open and green image. Development adjacent to both the freeway ring and the city’s major arteries (especially along Huron Parkway) must be accomplished consistent with the care and concerns epxressed by Ann Arbor citizens.”

Argetsigner noted that Huron Hills provides a dramatic but tranquil vista along Huron Parkway. The community has been committed to parks for many years, and leasing Huron Hills would fly in the face of that commitment. The PROS plan also calls for “developing appropriately existing lands along the river to relieve crowding of areas such as Gallup Park.” Huron Hills is adjacent to Gallup Park and the river’s South Pond, Argetsinger noted.

Finally, the PROS plan includes the greenbelt program, and Huron Hills actually stacks up well when evaluated according to the greenbelt criteria for selecting properties. Why is the city considering the transfer of Huron Hills development rights to the private sector, while actively pursuing development rights for property to include in the greenbelt? He concluded by stating, “the citizenry of Ann Arbor deserves better.”

Jane Lumm focused her comments on the financial performance of Huron Hills Golf Course, saying she wanted to clear up some misperceptions. Thanks to the city’s director of golf, Doug Kelly, she said, revenues are up over 30% at both Huron Hills and Leslie Park golf courses – and golf revenues for FY09 and FY10 exceeded the targets set by a golf consultant hired by the city by over $100,000. On an operating basis, she noted, before administrative and allocated costs, Huron Hills is about break-even, showing a small $10,000 loss. These numbers are contrary to the popular perception that Huron Hills is a significant financial drain, Lumm said. In fact, compared to other recreation activities that showed just a 2% revenue increase, the golf courses were doing quite well, she said.

Looking at all city support for rec activities, Lumm noted that Huron Hills accounted for just 6-8% of the total rec support – not the huge drain as it’s often portrayed. She quoted the report from the golf consultant hired by the city to evaluate the courses – he referred to Huron Hills as a “delightful golf course … that provides an unparalleled opportunity to enjoy a walk and is an ideal facility for juniors, seniors, and new entrants to the game,” while Leslie Park is characterized as a championship course. The courses are complementary, Lumm said, but Huron Hills “better fits the public recreation mission.” She concluded by stating that “the plan is really working and I’m hopeful PAC will be an ally in advocating to build on the success – to work the plan – rather than divert attention to RFPs and potential development on the site.” [Lumm and Morris also addressed the city council on the subject of Huron Hills Golf Course at its June 7, 2010 meeting]

Huron Hills: Manager’s Report

During his report to the commission, Colin Smith said there’d been a golf courses advisory task force meeting on June 9, but there isn’t yet an RFP developed. Staff has had other priorities, including the budget that was passed by council last month. Before an RFP is issued, he said, the staff will bring a draft to the task force for input, and will seek input from PAC as well before issuing it. A draft likely won’t be brought to the task force until August or September.

Smith said that at the task force’s March meeting, soon after city council had given the administration a directive to develop an RFP for Huron Hills, they discussed keeping the form very open, to allow for creative responses. It won’t be written in order to solicit a specific type of proposal, like a driving range, he said. Proposals might include keeping the course the same but turning over management to a private company, or it’s possible that the course would change form. It’s also possible that they won’t receive any responses to the RFP, he noted.

More information about the golf courses advisory task force is on the city’s website.

Ann Arbor Farmers Market Report

Molly Notarianni, the city’s market manager, gave commissioners an update on the farmers market and public market activities. Peter Pollack, chair of the Ann Arbor Public Market Advisory Commission, also spoke briefly.

Farmers Market: Report from Manager

Notarianni said the Ann Arbor Farmers Market is special in several ways: It’s historic, dating back 91 years; it’s open all year, not just during the traditional growing season; and it’s a producer-only market, with the requirement that vendors must make the items they sell. There are currently 143 vendors authorized to sell at the market, including 65 annual vendors – who have reserved stalls year-round – and 78 “dailies.” Not all of these vendors show up each week, Notarianni explained, and some have multiple stalls.

The winter market has been growing, she reported. When Notarianni took the manager job in 2008, there were only about eight to 10 vendors in the winter market, which runs on Saturdays only from January through March. This year, there were between 20-40 vendors on any given Saturday – an increase she attributed to more marketing and outreach.

There’s been an increased participation in food assistance programs too. Since last year, the market has accepted Electronic Benefit Transfers, or EBTs. The program uses Bridge Cards, which act like debit cards and have replaced food stamps. Customers can use their Bridge Cards to buy wooden tokens at the market office, which vendors accept as cash. [The Chronicle first wrote about the market's use of Bridge Cards in October 2008.] Notarianni described the program as “wildly successful,” with over $7,000 spent in Bridge Card payments in the past year. That’s money that likely wouldn’t have otherwise been spent at the market, she said.

There are several special events and activities aimed at drawing more customers to the market, she said, including chef demonstrations, canning lessons, and plastic planter recycling. The market is promoted via an email newsletter, and they’re raising revenue by selling totes, pins, postcards and other items with the market’s logo.

They do rapid market assessments regularly, Notarianni said, aimed at identifying shopping trends. [The market advisory commission discussed this type of assessment at their October 2009 meeting.] On a Saturday last September, for example, the assessment counted about 9,700 people, mostly coming from the 48103 and 48104 zip codes.

Notarianni described several site improvements to the public market area, including repainting, new signs, a PA system and electrical upgrades. Aside from the farmers market, other activities take place there as well, including the weekly Sunday Artisan Market, the Trunk-a-Palooza on Thursdays starting in July, annual happenings like the Homegrown Festival, and private events like weddings. There’s still a lot of untapped potential for using the public market space, she said.

The Ann Arbor Public Market Advisory Commission works on issues related to the market – recent projects include updating the vendor application and inspection forms, Notarianni said.

Pollack noted that the market is part of the parks system. In addition to PAC and the market advisory commission, the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority also has a stake in the market, he said. The three groups should be talking collectively about how to improve it, he suggested, giving examples of street trees along Fourth Avenue that could be replaced, or the gravel parking lot that would be repaved. As the market grows, he said, they should look for other possible locations to complement the existing space – at Community High across the street, for example, or the nearby McKinley parking lot. He said that PAC should expect to have more conversations about this “downtown urban open space.”

Farmer’s Market: PAC Comments and Questions

Sam Offen asked several questions regarding the vendors. In response, Notarianni explained that inspections were done both at the location where goods are produced, as well as at the point of sale. The city contracts with an inspector to do that work. Vendors come mostly from a radius within two hours of driving time, she said, but there are some from Ohio and northern Michigan that are farther away.

Offen asked whether they’d considered partnering with groups like Project Grow or the Leslie Science & Nature Center. They did, Notarianni said – last Saturday, for example, Leslie Science & Nature Center brought their birds to the market, and they’ll do the same this coming Saturday. Project Grow holds its annual tomato testing at the market, she said. But there is a lot of untapped potential for partnerships, she added.

In response to a question from John Lawter, Notarianni said that you can sign up to receive the market’s email newsletter on the city’s website. [Past newsletters are available to download here.]

Christopher Taylor asked why Notarianni believed there was still room for growth at the market. She said they receive more applications each month than they can include in the market, so they’re turning vendors away. Pollack added that there’s also a social aspect to the market – it’s not just for shoppers and vendors. People come to socialize, to people-watch. But it’s really crowded, he said, so providing more room for people to sit and socialize would improve the experience.

Julie Grand wrapped up the discussion by saying they were open to collaboration, and that they welcomed the opportunity to talk more about the market.

Misc. Updates: Mowing, PROS, Argo Dam

Colin Smith gave several updates during his manager’s report.

Starting July 1, with the new fiscal year, the budget includes funds to do hand trimming in the parks. The 19-day mowing cycle will remain in place, he said, but the hand trimming should make things look noticeably better.

A survey for the Park, Recreation and Open Space (PROS) plan, which staff is updating this year, has yielded 525 responses, he said. Their goal is to get between 500-600 responses by June 25. [Here's a link to the online survey.] There will be two more public meetings on the PROS plan: On Thursday, June 17 at 7 p.m. at the Leslie Science & Nature Center, and on Tuesday, June 29 at Cobblestone Farm, also at 7 p.m.

Staff is preparing an RFP for work to be done on Argo Dam, as required by a consent agreement signed by the city and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment. The work includes repair of the toe drains and reconfiguration or reconstruction of the millrace. It’s a complicated RFP to write, he said, and they are under a deadline to complete the work. He said that staff plans to share the RFP with all relevant commissions, including PAC, before issuing it. [.pdf of the consent agreement]

The FY 2011 budget also includes funding for a volunteer outreach coordinator – Smith said they plan to post that job opening soon.

Parks & Rec: Commissioner Comments and Questions

David Barrett reported that he planned to visit every ballfield in the city and take an inventory of conditions. He would present that information to PAC when he finished. He said he wasn’t trying to create a fuss, but it was part of PAC’s charge. Much of the community interacts with the parks system at the ballfields, and it was relevant to know what condition they were in.

Christopher Taylor returned to the topic of mowing. He said that if he planned to be out of town for 19 days, he would make sure to cut his lawn really short. It didn’t appear that this was the strategy of the parks staff, and he wondered why. Smith noted that Matt Warba, the city’s supervisor of field operations, would be able to speak “eloquently and eagerly” on the topic, but Warba did not attend Tuesday’s meeting, and Smith said he wasn’t sure of the answer.

Commissioner John Lawter, who serves as associate director of building services and grounds for the University of Michigan, said that in general, you could damage the lawn if you cut it too short. It was a fine line, he said, because you could also cause damage if it grows too long. Barrett noted that rain was a factor too – recent rains have caused the grass to grow more quickly, making the lack of mowing more noticeable.

Present: David Barrett, Tim Berla, Doug Chapman, Tim Doyle, Julie Grand, John Lawter, Karen Levin, Gwen Nystuen, Sam Offen, Mike Anglin (ex-officio), Christopher Taylor (ex-officio)

Next meeting: Tuesday, July 20 at 4 p.m. in the Washtenaw County administration building boardroom, 220 N. Main St. [confirm date]


  1. By Jack F.
    June 17, 2010 at 3:48 pm | permalink

    “But parks aren’t being maintained – she’s embarrassed that Veterans Memorial Park looks like a ghetto.”

    It’s looks HORRIBLE, like a busload of drunken monkeys were manning the mowing machines. It’s an insult to all veterans in this city to have a Veterans ‘memorial’ that is so poorly maintained, while the city finds dollars for other ‘priorities’.

  2. By jenkins
    June 17, 2010 at 4:05 pm | permalink

    Greedy, greedy, greedy….that is how I see the Park’s commission. This is all about money and backroom dealing so that they can earn more revenue from the parking lots.

    The benefits of having the new intermodal transit station (train, bus station and parking structure) exist in the city at all is the benefit that the city residents get from this project. Fewer cars will be on the roads, more people may take the bus/train which will decrease congestion throughout the city. It is benefit to the city as a whole.

    Why does the Parks Commission have to benefit specifically just because the desired location happens to be located in a parking lot on the edge of a park, an edge that really can be used for nothing else except growing grass?

    Everything in life has a trade off. I resent the fact that some on the Parks commission believe that there WANTS (and I say wants and not needs intentionally) are more important than the NEEDS of planning for future transportation issues for our city. Specific wants of one unit of government do not override the need of the City as a whole.

    And it is even more infuriating that these commissioners have actually stated that they would support the project as long as they benefited financially. Sure smacks of extortion to me. They will shut up as long as you pay them.

    This commission is an embarrassment to our city.

    June 18, 2010 at 12:14 am | permalink

    It strikes me that if this project was about train transit, the proposal would be to build a train station. Instead, the proposal is to build a parking garage for people who are not using any train. Am I missing something?

    Amtrak is building two new stations on the Det-Chicago line, but neither is in Ann Arbor. Why is that?

    When Amtrak was awarded Stimulous funds for developing high-speed rail, the Det-Chicago line was not a line where even study funds were to be spent. Does this tell us anything about the medium term plans for high speed railv on this line?

    Someday, we might have interplanetary transit service from this parking garage. Wouldn’t it make more sense to call this parking garage what it really is, the Fuller Road Interplanitary Transit Center? Wouldn’t that title would more fully recognize the full vision for this parking garage?

    Since the U is to be the major tenant of the parking garage, and the city only a minor player, why is the U not the owner of the garage? Will the U be required to make any provision for removing the garage (e.g. a bond) in the event they choose not to renew their lease?

    - John Floyd
    Republican Candidate for Ann Arbor City Council
    5th Ward

  4. By Anon-U-Are
    June 18, 2010 at 12:55 pm | permalink

    Right on John! This isn’t a transit center. This is a parking garage.

    It’ll be a cold day in you-know-where before a train stops at this transit center. The proposed east-west commuter line has been kept alive by the Granholm administration, working through MDOT. But it still needs tens of millions of dollars in capital costs, plus a dedicated source of operating funds.

    What do you think is going to happen when the republicans take back the Governor’s office in the next election. This project is dead.

    As for high-speed train travel, Amtrak’s goal is to increase speeds on the Detroit to Chicago line, but travel above 125 miles per hour is not being contemplated. This line will see some real improvements when the freight bottleneck is fixed in Indiana and suburban Chicago through stimulus funds that have already been awarded, but a wholesale reimagining of this line, complete with electrification, is not on the table. Amtrak knows it doesn’t have enough money to scrap a perfectly good station and build a new one just to satisfy the misguided dreams of Ann Arbor.