FOIA Reveals Mayor and Council Targeted Popular Parks For Development
A2PNotes: This is filed under “Scoops & Scores” because you read it here first
by P.D. Lesko
Collectively, Ann Arbor residents own about 2,000 acres of parkland. A conservative estimate of the value of the land, according to city officials, is anywhere from $600 million to $1.5 billion dollars.
Now a question.
Barton Pond, Bird Hills Nature Area, Barton Nature Area, Bandemer Park, Furstenberg Nature Area, Gallup Park, Huron Hills Golf Course, and Forest Park Nature Area all have one thing in common. Can you guess what it is?
In 2007, each of the parks above was evaluated for potential development and use for a so-called “intermodal” facility that would, so the story goes, eventually serve as a train station with bus stops and bike racks. A recent piece posted to AnnArbor.com points out that the “intermodal” project has turned out to be little more than a 900 car parking garage for the University of Michigan that is being financed, in part, with taxpayer money and being built on a parcel of river side land that belongs to the public, and is valued at somewhere between $4-$10 million dollars.
The eight parkland parcels mentioned above, all three acres or larger and adjacent to Fuller Road were targeted, according to documents, because “public ownership [was] an advantage to facilitate a change in use [rezoning] and to avoid acquisition cost.”
The targeting of the parkland for development in 2007, revealed in a recent cache of documents recently released to A2Politico in response to a FOIA of materials, including emails and communications between Council members, city staffers and Amtrak officials, is directly related to the U of M parking garage/Ann Arbor parkland lease project proposed on Fuller Road.
Not just the small Fuller Road park parcel was targeted. So were Gallup Park and the Huron Hills Golf Course.
A piece posted to AnnArbor.com refutes claims contained in an open letter posted to AnnArbor.com by John Hieftje that no taxpayer money has been used on the parking garage project. As it turns out, millions of dollars in taxpayer money have already been diverted from services to fund the as-yet-to-be-approved parking garage project. Several funding requests made by staff for the Fuller Road project have been presented without mention that the money is for the Fuller Road project.
Under the long-term (disguised sale) lease scheme cooked up by John Hieftje, former Third Ward Council member Leigh Greden and U of M officials, city officials could, in theory, lease a slice of Allmendinger Park to a company that wanted to put up a parking garage for use during U of M sporting events.
FOIAed documents revealed that officials targeted eight major parks for possible development, and that the Fuller Road parkland/U of M parking garage machinations began in earnest in 2007. In March of 2007, according to documents, “City officials completed an analysis of public lands adjacent to the Norfolk Southern Railroad corridor with access to the existing road system.”
Perhaps in response to that analysis, in August of that same year former First Ward Council member Bob Johnson put forward a resolution to amend Ann Arbor’s Charter to require a citywide vote on the sale of any parkland. According to the Ann Arbor News, Johnson’s “proposal was a response to a decision in Novi Township to sell park property in that nearby community. State law prevents communities from selling parkland that’s so designated in master plans, but Novi skirted the law by first revising its master plan.”
Johnson’s proposed resolution to put an amendment of the Charter to a public vote was defeated by the City Council 7-2. According to a 2008 piece published in the Ann Arbor News, “Johnson had proposed a charter amendment that would have required voter approval to sell parkland, regardless of the property’s status under the city’s master plan.
Hieftje was absent for the vote but made a point to tell the reporter, “He’s more than ready to block future city councils where park property is concerned.”
Second Ward Council member Stephen Rapundalo, who is being opposed by former Council member Jane Lumm in this November’s election, told a reporter in 2008, “True parks are encumbered now, and while it’s true that we can change that, there’d be hell to pay – and rightly so. Novi’s an extreme example,” he said. “Ann Arbor would be highly unlikely to do that [sell parkland].”
Two months later, according to an October 2007 piece published in the Ann Arbor News:
Trying to squash rumors by citizens afraid the city may sell parkland, the Ann Arbor City Council unanimously approved a resolution Monday that the city’s two golf courses can’t be sold for private development and will remain in the parks system as open space even if they are closed down.
Council Member Stephen Rapundalo, D-2nd Ward, facing a write-in candidate this November over parks issues, brought forward the resolution during a special session.
“This was meant to be an emphatic statement that we will not be contemplating selling these municipal golf courses for private development,” Rapundalo said after the meeting.
Rapundalo’s resolution stated “… Some residents continue to misrepresent the facts and insist that a sale of golf course properties is imminent, and whose sale proceeds would be used to fund other city capital improvement projects such as a new courts/police building.”
In 2008, Ann Arbor’s “Green Mayor” and his City Council pals sponsored a different kind of Charter amendment to “protect” parkland in the city from being sold without a vote of the people who own it. Hieftje told the local paper that, “he didn’t have concerns about the council selling land, but wanted to close a loophole that could allow such sales.” What Hieftje’s Charter amendment proceeded to do, of course, was to appear to protect parks, but in reality opened a loophole (leasing) a mile wide Hieftje and his Council supporters could subsequently exploit to develop parkland all over the city.
In 2010 elected officials changed allowed uses of parkland to include transit-oriented development. This was a crucial step in allowing parkland to be leased for periods long enough to qualify, the local chapter of the Sierra Club has argued, as de facto sales—without having to bring the question to the voters.
In 2009, two years after the staff-generated analysis that concluded the Fuller Road park parcel was “identified as the preferred site that best met the evaluation criteria,” Ann Arbor’s Transportation Manager, Eli Cooper, told AnnArborChronicle.com, “this [the idea to use the Fuller Road parcel for an intermodal facility] is all still in the very, very preliminary stages.”
Nothing could have been further from the truth.
A 2009 “feasibility study” produced by city staff which addressed the question of whether the Fuller Road park parcel could accommodate a parking garage report states, “Preliminary investigations confirm that a variety of deck configurations, accommodating from 875 to 1,500 parking spaces can be accommodated on the eastern end of the site (Fig. 2). However, the relocation of a portion of an existing sanitary line (to the perimeter of the parking deck/transit center footprint), or other protection strategy, will be required.”
The feasibility study was put together by some of the same city staff who had assembled the environmental analysis in 2007 that had targeted the eight park parcels for development, and zeroed in on the Fuller Road parcel. What were termed “preliminary investigations” by Eli Cooper in 2009 were, in fact, part of a foregone conclusion that had been decided some 24 months earlier, in a document that was never disclosed to the public.
As Rapundalo pointed out in 2008, if the public were aware that parkland was being targeted for sale, there would be hell to pay. Would the public be smart enough to rise up en masse in response to a leasing scheme? Perhaps no one wanted to take any chances. The 2009 feasibility study, initiated by staff at the request of John Hieftje, never mentions that eight park parcels had been targeted for development, nor did the 2009 study mention the 2007 analysis document shared by city staff with officials from Amtrak.
Emails provided in response to A2Politico’s FOIA request show that like the public, Amtrak officials have been led to believe that there would be high-speed rail funded with state and federal dollars, buses, bikes, and a brand new station built for Amtrak with taxpayer money. One email has Amtrak officials asking Hieftje to keep them up to date on his discussions with Governor Rick Snyder concerning funding and plans—plans for a non-existent trains and an unfunded station.
A May 26, 2011 email from an Amtrak official goes on to congratulate Hieftje on how “well-prepared the city is for high-speed rail.”
The tone of the email leaves one wondering just what, exactly, Hieftje, Cooper and other city staffers have led Amtrak officials to believe concerning the city’s preparedness.
In May of 2010, in an interview with a freelance reporter for AnnArbor.com that included Representative John Dingell, Hieftje told that reporter: “The high-speed isn’t going to happen without federal government help, and the commuter rail’s not going to happen without their help, either. The MDOT has been as helpful as they can be in a state that is really running out of money, but in order for this to happen, it’ll take federal involvement. What we’re hearing from the Deputy Secretary of Transportation is that they are very much involved in this and they really want to make it happen.”
Between May 2010 (the interview) and May 2011 (the email from the Amtrak official), Ann Arbor received no state or federal funding to support Hiefje’s rail project. In September of 2011, Representative Dingell announced $2.8 million in federal funding for an environmental study of the Fuller Road site. Transportation Manager Eli Cooper recently told Council members that no National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) study was necessary for the Fuller Road parking garage to proceed, so it’s unclear why Ann Arbor needs money from the federal government for a study that city officials claim is not necessary.
Then again, Eli Cooper writes in an email to an Amtrak official dated June 7, 2011 that, “I just met with the Mayor and he thought it would be useful if he could review a draft of your proposed statement [letter of support]. As you can imagine he is sensitive to the issues and might be able to offer some feedback to sharpen the focus and value of the statement. Am curious if you are open to sharing a draft with us prior to formally issuing a statement.”
The letter of support Hieftje helped write was then mailed to Hieftje and City Council members, according to an email between Cooper and Amtrak officials dated June 14, 2011.
A student journalist from Eastern Michigan University explains the situation in simple terms. On September 11, 2011, The Eastern Echo published a piece titled, “Something smells fishy by UofM.” The piece, written by Eastern Michigan University student Chris Hoitash, goes on to opine on the use of parkland on Fuller Road in Ann Arbor for a parking garage for the University of Michigan. Hoitash writes:
So the city is circumventing the law by giving the University of Michigan a new parking garage for the sake of a new commuter rail line. As a proponent for public transportation, you might expect me to praise the new line and berate people for trying to stop my grand vision of state and national transit.
However, this seems a bit fishy to me.
Using loopholes to appropriate parkland is not a good thing in my book. It looks bad, and might make other people think, “What’s going on here?”
Hoitash goes on to write:
The land’s acquisition is also questionable. The charter states a public vote must take place to sell parkland. However, it appears Ann Arbor Mayor John Hieftje and some council members found a way to circumvent the law. If the law says a vote needs to be held, either change the law or have the blasted vote.
Don’t skirt it just because the land is “technically” a park.
Out of the mouthes of babes.
The de facto sale through the decades-long lease of the Fuller Road parkland isn’t just about a gateway into Ann Arbor, it’s about a quagmire of smarmy back room dealing, and underhanded politics played by women and men who believe the people who pay the bills aren’t the “decision-makers.” It’s about how to foster future development along the Huron River on land that belongs to the public.
In the 80s, the Fuller Road parkland parcel was valued between $4-$10 million dollars. It seems fair to ask a final question: Why are John Hieftje and City Council, who are never afraid to cry poor, so very afraid to ask voters if they can sell the Fuller Road parkland to U of M for a parking garage?
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