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Regents give OK to parking garage plan

BY JACOB SMILOVITZ
Daily Staff Reporter
Published September 18, 2008

Despite strong opposition from city residents and officials, the University Board of Regents unanimously approved a proposal for a free-standing parking structure, office building and transit center near the University's Medical campus yesterday afternoon.

The proposal for the new Wall Street development, across the Huron River from the University Hospital, includes the Wall Street Office Building, East Parking Structure and Transit Center.

An additional parking structure in the same development was not included in yesterday's proposal to the regents.

The $48-million proposal has been the source of much complaint among local residents of the Lower Town neighborhood, who cite the potential environmental implications of the proposal, the expected construction noise and the notion of having to look at the parking structure outside their homes.

The project is a part of the University Health System's 2005 "Master Plan" for the expansion of the medical campus. Yesterday's vote authorized the University to start commissioning plans from developers. The project must go before the regents again once schematic designs are completed.

In a speech to the regents, Ann Arbor Mayor John Hieftje discussed the concerns of his constituents and suggested transportation alternatives to support the University's further development in the Wall Street area.

"We would like you to work with us, to step back — it doesn't have to be for a long time — and take a look," Hieftje said, referring to the University's plans to go forward with the construction. "Is there another way to get people into the Wall Street area except creating two new parking structures there, in what could become a very congested area?"

Hieftje proposed that the University focus on the development of rail lines through the city and move parking underground so local residence wouldn't have to look at the structures.

"I'm not sure we have overturned every stone and looked down every avenue to see if there isn't another solution," he said.

After Hieftje spoke, University President Mary Sue Coleman opened the floor to comments from the public about the Wall Street proposal.

Several residents who live in the area used the opportunity to ask the regents to reject the proposal.

Raymond Detter, a Univesity alum and the chairman of the Ann Arbor Downtown Area Citizens Advisory Council, said the proposal "forever changes the possible use and streetscape of the Maiden Lane-Wall St. area."

He said the plan would put thousands of cars on the road, which would add not only to local traffic congestion, but also to air and water pollution.

"For those of us who have worked for years on this particular project, it's a slap in the face," Detter told the regents.

University alum Rosemary Sarri, a Lower Town resident, said the University needs to think of new solutions to traffic rather than recycling old ones.

"The construction of these free standing parking structures is an obsolescent, old idea and we really need to think of other alternatives," she said.

Additionally, those residents in attendance distributed a 231-person petition from residents of the Lower Town neighborhood asking the regents not to approve the construction plan.

The petition said the construction of the parking structure would harm the public health of local residents, damper economic development in the area, create public safety hazards by putting more cars on the road, and increase crime by creating two large empty structures that would be mostly unoccupied at night.

Coleman said she understood the concerns of local residents.

"I know that people feel passionately," said Coleman in an interview after the meeting. "We've listened and will continue to listen, and as we design the project we will certainly want to be sensitive to people's concerns."

Regent Julia Darlow (D-Ann Arbor) said during the meeting the regents appreciated input from the local residents and the mayor and that the regents were only being asked to approve one of the parking structures.

"That process has been going on for a long time and will continue to go on," she said. "It's not just what we get here at the meetings that we have been paying attention to."

She then made a motion to approve a resolution giving the go-ahead to one of the parking structures.

Regent Laurence Deitch (D-Bingham Farms) told the residents opposed to the project that while it is important to take the concerns of the residents into consideration, "the Medical Center is one of the spires of excellence at the University" and that it "needs to continue to grow for the overall growth and health of the community."

In an interview after the meeting, Deitch said the financial performance of the University is intertwined with the economic prosperity of the larger Ann Arbor community.

"The University is the economic driver for the community, so we have to work collaboratively with the community to the fullest extent possible," he said. "But at the same time we've got the responsibility to nurture the growth of the University. So, it's a balancing act."