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The Politics of the Environment: New Citizen Group Forms to Combat University of Michigan Parking Garage

A2P Notes: This post is filed under Scoops & Scores, because you read it here first.

Ann Arbor’s Transportation Program Manager Eli Cooper, wants you to believe that spending millions to build a 977-space parking garage for the University of Michigan is a giant step in the direction of “encouraging alternative transportation.” Cooper also wants you to believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. If you believed in fairy tales, that would be swell, too.

After building the Arthur Miller Theater atop a 900-space North Campus parking lot, the University of Michigan needs more parking near its ever-expanding hospital campus. In 2008, officials threatened to build two parking towers opposite the Kellogg Eye Center. Neighborhood residents were up in arms over the plan, and in response First Ward Council member Sabra Briere, along with John Hieftje, responded to the University’s fiat with a “Resolution Calling for Increased Cooperation between the City and the University of Michigan in Planning for Redevelopment of the Wall Street Area.” The resolution called for, yes, cooperation between the City and University.

Here’s how the Hieftje/Briere “Resolution of Cooperation” works. City officials bend over and shout to U of M officials, “Please, Sir. May we have another?” Taxpayers get to pay to millions for the privilege of watching.

U of M suspended that parking deck project (without promising not to build parking decks in that neighborhood sometime in the future) because, one imagines, someone made the University a much better offer—land directly in front of the hospital complex, leased for 30 years at a discounted lease rate.

Eli Cooper was quoted in the press as explaining how the arrangement would work in February 2010 at a public meeting:

Eli Cooper said there’s a continuing commitment to city parks, through the city’s memorandum of understanding with UM. The facility will be city-owned, he said, so there’ll be no transfer of parkland to the university. And since the parkland isn’t going to be sold, he said, it’s not necessary to bring the city charter into the discussion. [He was referring to a charter requirement, approved by voters in November 2008, that the sale of city parkland be authorized through a voter referendum.]

Pretty neat circular logic, huh? One Council member explained to me that Cooper frequently makes it up as he goes along. At the same meeting, Cooper told listeners that Ann Arbor’s population was expected to grow by 1,800 by 2035, and that the city would add 18,900 jobs by 2035. Between 2000-2010, Ann Arbor lost residents, according to recently released census data, and experienced a net loss of jobs, as well.

I’ll give you one guess who “championed” the Charter amendment in 2007 that requires a vote of the people to sell, but not to lease, parkland. It was our very own realtor-turned-realtor/politico John Hieftje. It should be obvious now why he deliberately left out all language to do with leasing from the Charter amendment. There were plans afoot to lease parkland, such as the Fuller Road parcel, and Huron Hills Golf Course.

The Fuller Road Parking Garage, has come to be referred to as “Hieftje’s Folly” by those in opposition to it.

Hieftje, Cooper and U of M officials have their stories down: the spin is that for now it’s a parking garage, but soon, very, very, very soon, it’s going to be a train station. Amtrak will move there, “within the next few decades,” Cooper told a reporter on February 1, 2011.  At a meeting in February 2010, Cooper told residents that “Amtrak will feel pressure” to move to the Fuller Road location. (Amtrak officials, when asked on February 4, 2011, said that there are absolutely no plans to relocate Ann Arbor’s present station.)

In November 2009 City Council members voted to approve a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the City of Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan for the use of the land and the construction of the parking deck. It was a one-sided agreement the likes of which hasn’t been seen since Neville Chamberlain negotiated the Munich Pact.

The agreement gives the University of Michigan permission to lease river front parkland for under $30,000 per year. Read the MOU carefully, and you’ll see that the University pays for 78 percent of the cost and receives 100 percent of the parking spots. Parking rights for Ann Arbor residents are not spelled out in the MOU.

The local Chapter of the Sierra Club quickly came out against building a parking garage on land which had been zoned for parks, regardless of the fact that the parcel had been leased for parking. The Sierra Club was joined by members of the A2P2 citizen group, the same rowdies who hired an attorney, and have been fighting City Hall over plans to lease out the operations of Huron Hills Golf Course as a concession. Now, a new citizen group calling itself “M Go Green – A 2 Green Sustaiability Coalition” (http://mgogreen.org/) has organized in opposition to the parking structure. The M Go Green group describes itself as “a coalition of University of Michigan community members and Ann Arbor residents who think we need clean, affordable, and efficient transportation solutions, not more and more parking garages.”

Like the A2P2 web site when it debuted, the M Go Green site lists no names of those involved. It’s entirely possible that M Go Green’s “Ann Arbor resident” members may be some of the same A2P2 members who have taken a firm stance against the de facto sale of parkland through the use of long-term leases, such as the lease proposed in the MOU between the City and the University of Michigan. According to a piece posted to AnnArbor.com in January 2010:

The executive committee of the Huron Valley Group of the Sierra Club, representing about 3,000 members in the area, has passed a resolution opposing the city’s Fuller Road intermodal transit station project.

“We are outraged over the notion that the city, very recently after passionately assuring the public that the city’s parkland would never be sold to outside interests without a vote of its citizens, would turn right around and spend hundreds of thousands of its dollars and study a proposed permanent car structure to be built on city parkland,” said James D’Amour, a Sierra Club executive committee member.

“Very clearly this violates the spirit – if not the fine print legal definition – of the city’s ordinances,” he said.

Despite vocal opposition by the local Sierra Club chapter and its 3,000 members, Hieftje and his Council supporters (Sandi Smith, Sabra Briere, Tony Derezinski, Stephen Rapundalo, Margie Teall, Marcia Higgins and Carsten Hohnke) have pushed the project forward. Only Fifth Ward Council member Mike Anglin and Third Ward Council member Steve Kunselman have gone on the record as objecting to the Fuller Road Parking Garage project. At a recent Council meeting, Anglin made it clear that he wasn’t interested in voting to “build parking for the University of Michigan.” He said he’d rather see the city spend the money on more buses. Kunselman told a reporter from The Michigan Daily recently, “We can call it a transit center, but it’s really just a parking lot with a bus stop.”

University of Michigan spokesman Jim Kosteva took a turn shoveling it high and deep. Kosteva recently told a reporter that, “The Fuller Road transit station is especially necessary, because the city’s population is expected to rise, which will increase the need for alternative transportation methods.”

Alternative transportation methods? Like, um, 977 more parking spaces for U of M employees generously paid for, in part, by the taxpayers of the City of Ann Arbor?

Get out your wallet and bend over. The City of Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan are “cooperating.”

A2P.S.: This just from an A2 politico.

Here are some financial highlights of Fuller Road and related train folly from the most recent city Capital Improvements Plan.

Fuller Road station phase I   $43 million
Interim Detroit commuter parking $540,000
Wally capital investment   $250,000
Wally downtown station construction  $5 million
Wally downtown station location study  $100,000
Wally plymouth rd rail station development  $250,000
Model for mobility signature transit service alternatives analysis $3 million
Model for mobility signature transit service design  $33 million
Model for mobility transit connector construction $300 million
Amtrack station relocation $82 million

Most of the money for this is supposed to come from federal and state grants, although AATA is supposed to kick in just over $15 million.

If you would like to tell John Hieftje and City Council that they should stop cooperating on the Fuller Road Parking garage, you can email them as a group by clicking here

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