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The Politics of A2 Parks: Mayor John and the Dame of North Campus

First a joke (well, it’s actually not funny): So what do you give the University President who has everything? You give her a public park for her to build her parking garage on! 

Next, a name:  Doug Cowherd. Do you know it? You should.

Doug Cowherd is the long-time co-Chair of the Huron Valley Group of the Sierra Club. He represents about 2,500 members, about 1,000 of whom reside in Ann Arbor. That’s a lot of green power, as it were. Cowherd is a tall man with wire-rim glasses. He speaks precisely, quietly and slowly, measuring every word. It doesn’t take a lot to realize quickly that Doug Cowherd is as careful as he is calculating. Above all, Doug Cowherd, it is said, hates to lose a political battle. 

That’s a bad trait for any general. It is said that President Lincoln fired General George McClellan for having just the same trait: McClellan would not go to battle unless he was assured of a victory. 

A quick look at the Huron Valley Sierra Club’s Local Issues page will give you an oversight of the battles Cowherd and his Sierra Club members have taken on. There was the 2004 Greenbelt Proposal. There was also the 2003 Ann Arbor Township Proposal B for Land Preservation.

What I’m wondering is whether the local Sierra Club will finally get green and get involved in any substantive way to thwart the City Council’s current plan to use parkland for the The Fuller Intermodal Transportation Station project parking garage. Yes, the Mayor has proposed giving away our parkland to the University of Michigan. FITS is a joint venture between the University of Michigan and Ann Arbor that would include 900 parking spaces in a multi-level structure, across from Fuller Pool (tip o’ the keyboard to SBean). 

At a recent October Ann Arbor Park Advisory Commission (PAC) meeting, PAC commissioners questioned Eli Cooper, the city’s transportation manager, about  FITS. There was a question about the classification of the city-owned land being used: In the city’s master plan, the space where city and university officials want to locate the parking deck is  designated as parkland. However here in Ann Arbor, parkland is classified under the category of “public land.” Public land, my fellow politicos, thanks to a convenient loophole in the zoning laws, can include transportation uses. 

Enter the local Sierra Club. Will Doug Cowherd and his forces step up to stop the give-away by City Council of public city parkland to the University of Michigan? Will the Sierra Club rally to force City Council to amend the zoning law that allows “transportation” uses of public property designated as “parkland?”  This parking deck on city parkland is being built in place of the two parking decks the University proposed building in the middle of the First Ward Wall Street neighborhood last year. Wall Street neighbors rallied to fight the project and the University with little help from Mayor Hieftje and First Ward Council members. Here was the extent of help the Wall Street neighbors got. In July of 2008, the Mayor and First Ward City Council member Sabra Briere put forth the ballsy, “Resolution Calling for Increased Cooperation between the City and the University of Michigan in Planning for Redevelopment of the Wall Street Area.” You go, Girls! Right over to Dr. Mary Sue Coleman to trade fist bumps and lip gloss with the U of M Prez. Needless to say, Mary Sue Coleman responded to the resolution with swift action. I don’t know exactly which recycling bin she put it in, but that woman would never have just thrown away a piece of paper from our Mayor and Council. She probably had someone do it for her. Maybe the Dean of the School of Natural Resources, or the VP of Pacifying Ann Arbor City Council.

The gesture of giving away public land to the University reminds me of Queen Victoria’s gift of Mount Kilimanjaro to her grandson, the future Kaiser Wilhelm. Alas, the sun never seems to set on the crooked dealings of the Mayor John who would be King and his merry band of Eight. They who seek use a zoning loophole to give away the parkland of the people to a Dame who owns 800 acres of land we all know as the Dutchy of  North Campus.

Will the local Sierra Club and Doug Cowherd play a starring role in this MGM classic, or is all of Ann Arbor watching the opening scenes of Fuller Park Gone With The Wind? 

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On October 16, 2009, I posted a Weekend Poll: Should Mayor John Give Dame Mary Sue Parkland at Fuller Park For Her Parking Garage? Of the 374 people who've voted ...
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The Politics of A2 Parks: Huron Valley Group

Short URL: http://www.a2politico.com/?p=424

25 Comments for “The Politics of A2 Parks: Mayor John and the Dame of North Campus”

  1. hasn’t the city torn up asphalt to return an area to parkland before?

    Do you know of any actual instances where this has actually happened in Ann Arbor? Say, an acre or more of paved parking lot into park space. I don’t think so.

    The automobile is ravenous and doesn’t give up land easily, especially to a “less intense” use like a park. Parking lots tend to get reused for “more intense” uses, such as new buildings. The strip of landscaping around a new building doesn’t really qualify as parkland.

    Of course it’s possible to tear up a parking lot, but the land underneath (which was stripped of natural features, graded, covered in sand, contaminated with oils, etc.) will never be the same. It will be, at best, a very artificial landscape.

  2. Am I mistaken but hasn’t the city torn up asphalt to return an area to parkland before? Simply because it’s a parking lot now, doesn’t mean our parkland should be turned into a parking garage forever. That land belongs to the people, and is not anyone’s to lend out. I understand Mr. Kestenbaum’s reasoning, but don’t agree with it. The comment #8 is absolutely right that it does matter what is done with our parkland.

  3. Damn me if you will, but I’m not climbing aboard this particular bandwagon.

    When this piece of a park was turned into a parking lot, it was lost to parkland.

    If you wanted to keep it a park, it shouldn’t have been paved over and turned into a storage area for automobiles.

  4. Mr. Kestenbaum, the issue isn’t the Stadium Bridge, it’s giving parkland to the U for a parking garage. You may have something invested in changing the subject, or not, but for me the poll results represent my opinion. No parkland for Coleman. For any reason. Mayor and Council have crossed the line on this one.

  5. It turns out I misread the “conceptual plan” which showed State Street bridging over Stadium, casting a shadow on Stadium. Apparently that was a drafting error, and the actual plan is to raise Stadium higher through that area, with bridges OVER the railroad and State Street.

    I apologize for my misunderstanding.

  6. The big deal, I think, is that because Council waited and waited to fix the bridge, it deteriorated to the point were it’s going to cost more regardless of whatever the final decision may be. Your points about the “mega-project” are well-taken. However, once again, there is less money spent on important infrastructure projects like streets and bridges and lots of money spent on sexy projects like this train station and parking garage. To think that we will give, lease, loan or otherwise use parkland for any purpose other than a park causes me great concern. I agree with #6 above that such a maneuver sets a frightening precedent.

  7. The Stadium bridges would not be such a big deal if the city weren’t intent on making it a $22 million mega-project.

    These elaborate plans call for putting East Stadium UNDER the railroad and State Street, replacing the current embankment with a deep hole (think of how much earth moving would be involved). The whole project would take about three years to complete, during which time we will have to live without Stadium and State Street.

    Is this really necessary? The railroad bridge is not falling down, and probably could last quite a few more years. The one span over State Street could easily be replaced without any massive earth moving. And the road pavement should be redone through that entire area.

    The only problem this wouldn’t solve is the “low” clearances over the railroad and State Street. But we have lived with the existing clearances for decades. Is it worth some $20 million, right now, just for that?

  8. I have not seen a plan on where the city expects to get the money to pay for it’s share of the project and I doubt one exists. Unfortunately, the forces pushing this project managed to get council to agree to spend a few hundred thousand dollars of scarce funds to pay for consultants for a project that will benefit the U of M Hospital. Funny how there is plenty of money for a big parking structure for the U but no money for the Senior Center, Mack Pool, the Stadium Bridge or police.

    High speed rail is just a fantasy to sell this project because there are no operating subsidies for the trains. Amtrack is not even willing to relocate unless city taxpayers pay for a new train station. Maybe the Mayor will recommend we close another fire station so we can build a new Amtrack station.

  9. Thank you SBean for the link to the map for the Fuller Parking lot. I am relieved to see that our pool and park will not be overshadowed by a parking garage. At least not for now, I must say. If the park land across the street is developed, the park land on the pool side of the street could be developed as well.

    And I am still left with a big question about the location of this transit center. The destinations on that corner are the park ( has a parking lot) and the UM Hospital.

    I agree with Mr Kestenbaum that the city and the U are not enemies, but if the U needs parking, the U should build parking on its own property. It has its own giant park right there next to the hospital. But I don’t see a suggestion to build a tranist center in the Arb.

    A bus dept or train depot would be great… in town. We have Blake tranist Center. What ever happened to the plans to expand it? It is in the perfect place, in town. Also we have an Amtrak station, what is needed is a better connection between the two and better and more frequent service of buses and trains…

  10. Council, as a whole, is not corrupt, cynical nor does the entire group have contempt for the public. The Ann Arbor News, in June and July, made quite clear which of them showed clearly their propensity toward corruption, cynicism and contempt for the public. They are referred to as the Hieftje Eight. Rene Greff referred to a smaller “cabal,” comprised of Mayor, Higgins, Greden, Teall and Rapundalo.

    It’s horrible to think the majority of our Council members are people who were caught with their electronic pants down and their attitudes exposed in public. However, it was the newspaper’s investigative work that outed these people. They demonized themselves, and now they are reaping the rewards of acting imperiously and foolishly. They ought to have resigned, the lot of them. That they didn’t leaves them open to criticism and suspicion based on their own actions.

    It wasn’t an isolated incident, or a simple mistake. On our City Council there is an atmosphere of hubris toward and disdain for the public on the part of people who mistook election for coronation.

  11. Compliance with the charter (including its “loopholes”) is not optional. Not counting, I should say, the many provisions which have been voided by state statutes or court decisions. Years ago, fifty miles from here, my friends and I challenged a city official whose ownership interest in a city vendor was a clear violation of that city’s charter; the city attorney only had to point out that the charter’s conflict of interest rules had been superseded by a state law, which defined violations much more narrowly.

    If the 2008 amendment had flatly prohibited renting parks to non-park entities, then community organizations could not hold events in city parks. To realistically address renting and leasing would have required a bunch of additional language to define that prohibition. Obviously the authors of the amendment did not choose to go there, and as you say, it wasn’t a secret even at the time.

    As I’m sure you know, I have disagreed with and criticized the current mayor and council on a number of issues. I have supported Steve Kunselman and Sabra Briere in all their campaigns, and Mike Anglin in 2008. But I absolutely reject your contention that the council as a whole is corrupt, cynical, or has contempt for the public. They are mostly well intentioned, if sometimes misguided, and demonizing them does nobody any good.

    Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan live in a symbiotic relationship, and it would be disastrous if they went to war with each other. The university’s purchase of Pfizer may be a reduction in the tax base, but it preserves the site as an employment center, which is far more valuable to the city than vacant land broken up and sold for more condos, which is what Pfizer would have done if no buyer of the whole complex was forthcoming.

    To insist on the point that the university leaders and half the city council are evil people is indeed, as I wrote earlier, spiteful and paranoid. It does not advance the community in any way, even for those who strongly disagree with those officials.

  12. “Only in Ann Arbor”– a rhetorical slap down or a mental snark hunt? Either way, I’ll cede this one to you as I’m not equipped to argue the meaning of “onlyness”. Larry, this field is all yours.

    What interests me, is your take, as county clerk, on charter amendments enacted by the electoral process. Is compliance optional? Are then the lots at Gallup, Vets, Buhr, Argo, etc up for grabs because their use within the park system is to provide a place for park users to “park”? In August 2008 park land protection charter amendment was approved by council for the Nov. ballot. As noted at the time, by many “only-in-ann-arborites”, there was a loophole in the proposal big enough for a Hummer: It would not prevent the leasing of park land. “Corrupt” and “cynical” are still the words that come to mind. If you are more charitable, maybe “inept” would work. But I’ll stand by corrupt and cynical because there is a history with this mayor and council of contempt for the public. This is a corruption of representative government by cynical politicians who have been elected to represent.

    Regarding the gifting of Ann Arbor property to the U: This is best described as reverse noblesse oblige. As Ann Arbor struggles to make ends meet, the U comes along and buys up Pfizer, removing another golden nugget from the town burse. What do our little burghers do? They brush the goat hair from their clothes, remove the mud from their clogs, hold their heads high and offer the U a gift, just to show they still hold the power to give before it is taken.

    You have employed the word “desecration” to describe an atavistic devotion to a parking lot. Trivializing opposition to a giveaway is nothing new, but here you’ve invented a new cult to do so. This is truly novel and I congratulate you for your contribution to the arsenal of rhetorical weaponry. The ongoing battle of the political class to avoid discussion of any real issues might be lost without constant modernization. Crikey, Larry, this is unworthy of you.

  13. Pearl, that’s not the parking lot in question. Check out the image here, http://annarborchronicle.com/2009/09/16/city-seeks-feedback-on-transit-center/, and you’ll see that it’s across the street from the pool parking area.

  14. I can well understand where Pearl C. is coming from — she doesn’t want to see a 900-space parking structure in her neighborhood, and is concerned about the negative impact it will have. This is a genuine argument against doing it. Or, if the city really does go ahead with this, all of her concerns (and others) should be taken seriously, and mitigated to the extent feasible.

    I don’t think it would be acceptable for the structure to shade the pool on summer mornings. If that’s not possible, then this isn’t the right place for a structure.

    See, all these are real, practical issues. Neighborhood issues. I don’t like the condescending term “NIMBY”.

    But all the airy-fairy stuff about offended high principles strikes me as extremely spiteful and paranoid. Policy ought not be driven by animus against the university, which after all, is part of this community too. Passing initiatives motivated by distrust of policymakers as a group is what has given us term limits and gridlock in Lansing. Building and maintaining a community requires mutual respect and genuine effort to meet everyone’s needs.

    And that includes having a nice place to swim.

  15. Mr. Kestenbuam,

    I live close enough to Fuller Pool to consider it my neighborhood swimming hole. (Wish we could swim at Argo Pond…but that’s a different story) Close enough to often ride bikes there with my kids but far enough away that sometimes I drive over to swim laps. Fuller Pool is one of only three public outdoor pools in Ann Arbor. It is the longest pool of the three by far, and is popular for lap swimming, and training for kids and adults.

    Fuller Park also has a large playground and well-used soccer fields. The parking lot there has many signs indicating that it is for Park use only. But I’m sure many people who work at the hospital across the street park there and risk a ticket.

    Fuller Park is a well-used park on the outskirts of a small midwestern town. Sometimes on a warm summer evening it’s hard to find a place to park, because of all the soccer players and fans and all the folks in the pool. But I’ve always found a place to squeeze in.

    Is it NIMBY of me not to want that to change? I don’t want to have circle the parking deck to go for a swim. Why should the soccer players? How about the many summer camps and day care centers who bring kids to the pool all summer long? How about the Full Pool Day Camp? And the many kids and families who use the play structure and have picnics there.

    I cringe to think about an increase of traffic through there. I have seen the groups of day care kids going in and out. I have come close to being hit by drivers leaving that lot and not looking out for bikers on the side walk. Would the structure shade the pool? Would the pollution from all those extra vehicles increase the dirt in a pool which could use some serious maintanence already?

    Why does this lot need to be increased by a factor of two or four? If you aren’t using the Park, why would you want to park there? Oh yes, that big hospital across the street. More parking is needed there. Then the hospital and the University officials need to figure out a way to accomodate their workers, patients and vistors.

    I beg your pardon, it is not a parking lot. It is the space to park while at the Park.

  16. Larry,

    Are you being deliberately obtuse? It’s a parking lot in an area designated as parkland. How’s about Mary Sue puts her parking garages on her own land and leaves our parkland that we support through taxes to us? She built the Arthur Miller Theater on top of a huge parking lot on North Campus, and now she wants her 900 spaces. First it was across from the Kellogg Eye Center, and now it’s in a public park.

  17. So this is the “cynical corruption of the will of Ann Arbor citizens”? The horror that we should give “anything at all to the well endowed university”? The “beamish boys at Larcom”?

    Only in Ann Arbor would the rhetorical banners be raised so high over the desecration of a parking lot with, uh, more parking spaces.

  18. Yes it matters if a UM parking structure gets built on a lot within a park that is within a park system supposedly protected from sell-off. Fuller Park is in use throughout the day during the summer and afternoons and evenings spring and fall. Free parking comes with the use of the pool and fields–no one has to pay for it. But this is a specious objection anyway. The issues are: 1) our city giving anything at all to the well endowed university and 2) the cynical corruption of the will of Ann Arbor citizens. But, I guess the citizens are culpable for not having employed a microscope for the fine print–we voted to keep the parks from being sold. This is a giveaway. At the time of the vote, loopholes were noted by the vigilant, but those objections were labeled “negativity”. That’s all it takes in this town to quell dissent.

    When we voted to protect our parkland, our intention was to preserve it for what any reasonable person would call a park. At the time there was no confusion between park and parking. But I imagine the transformation happened something like this: Not long after the citizenry were pacified by their little victory, the beamish boys at Larcom discovered a new amusement– fun with homographs– Park—“a place for recreation” and park–as in “to park”. Many long hours were spent in the tedious bureaucratic alchemy of loopholes–verbing the noun, nouning the verb. Just when they feared their efforts would lead to naught, one of the “good” citizens (known affectionately as the Doulton Blue Flaneur) happened by and also happened to have his Oxford Compact on him, which he consulted on the matter: Park (definition #4): “an area in which vehicles may be parked [brit]”. This inspired The Boss to write up a purchase order for the Oxford Complete, which he now consults several times a day for the sake of ambiguity.

    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
    “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
    “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”
    Through the Looking Glass.

  19. [...] laws (interestingly) that allows our City Council to use parkland for transportation purposes. In a piece I wrote about a joint venture between the city and the University of Michigan to put a parking [...]

  20. Larry,

    The concern this project raises is not that a parking structure will be built where a lot now exists, but that the project will set a precedent for other sites zoned as parkland. The voters passed an ordinance that prohibits sale of parkland, at least in part because the voters do not trust City Council. That ordinance, apparently, can be circumvented by using land that is zoned as parkland in partnership with others rather than through an actual sale. If this Council is permitted to set that precedent, then no parkland is safe from imaginative projects that partner the City with other governmental entities or businesses.

    The Parks Advisory Commission has raised this issue and it should be publicly discussed and settled before the City makes plans for that site. Most parks have a parking lot. Does that mean the City can (or should) build huge multi-story parking structures on any of those sites? I hope not.

  21. You’re upset about a parking structure being built on the site of — a parking lot?

    The structure would increase the capacity of the existing lot by probably a factor of two or four. More cars in a smaller space means less parkland paved over for surface lots.

    Why couldn’t this structure continue to accomodate pool and park patrons? It would be plausible for the structure to be free during nonbusiness hours, when the park and pool would be most heavily used. If so, what would the current users lose, exactly? The wonder of the sky directly above their vehicles? The glorious wintertime privilege of parking on a snow-clogged surface lot?

    I am very dubious about applying such highfalutin’ principles to this situation, so that mere parking spaces are elevated to the exhalted status of holy parkland.

  22. I’m a member of the Sierra Club, and have gone on a few outings with the local group. Frankly, the group seems more social than political. Different groups have different levels of political involvement. When I lived in Boulder the Rocky Mountain Chapter was super politically active. Lots of issues and initiatives. There were regular updates about pending legislation being supported by the group. I don’t believe there’s anything like that in this group.

  23. Come on, folks, are we surprised at this latest scheme to waste taxpayer’s money and give the U something for nothing? The Democrats on Council have been spending, spending, spending over the past few years. Now, we’ll have more spending on big ticket items while our city services get axed. What can we do? They seem determined to do as much damage as possible until they get voted out of office, or move on. If I were a Democrat, at this point I would be thoroughly embarrassed by the sheer wastefulness of these people. As it stands, I have hopes that Marcia Higgins will lose in November and there will be at least one person on Council who will not be a part of the cabal.

    As for the local Sierra Club, the group has been led for far too long by Mr. Cowherd. It’s time for new leadership. What A2Politico suggests above will never happen so long as Cowherd controls the group. It’s objectivity, thanks to his feud with the Mayor, was compromised long ago. Time to bring in a new “general.”

  24. Well done A2Politico! Giving away parkland to the U is a total scam. If they want more parking, you are absolutely right on to point out that they’ve got hundreds of acres of land on north campus to use. First they try to put parking decks in our neighborhoods, now in our parks. What’s next? Maybe we could put a bus depot at the Mayor’s house.

  25. I don’t know that I remember the local Sierra Club people being involved in anything of this nature. It does seem as though an issue like this would fall into the category of an issue a group such as the Sierra Club would involve itself in. I will be interested to see what, exactly, comes of this project. If city officials can gift one plot of parkland for “transportation,” it stands to reason that any plot of land so zoned would be in jeopardy.

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