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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

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UMHS opens parking structure over city objections

By Shoham Geva, Summer Managing News Editor
Published July 8, 2014

The $34 million, 725-space University parking garage that opened Monday on Wall Street was never one of the big ticket items in the University of Michigan Health System’s 2005 expansion plan.

Located on the edge of the medical campus but bordering the Ann Arbor Lower Town residential neighborhood, the garage wasn’t even the focal point of planned development in its corridor, which also included a major 2006-2010 renovation to the Kellogg Eye Center. Furthermore, it built on previous efforts in the area, adding on to an already existing lot.

However, over the years between its first approval in 2008 and second approvalwith modifications in 2012 following an unsuccessful attempt at a city partnership to place it elsewhere, the project found plenty of visibility from a different sector. Along with a net gain of 509 parking spaces for UMHS, the opening also came with a history of years of disagreement between the University and Lower Town residents, prompted by its location between campus and city.

Jim Kosteva, University director of community relations, said in an e-mail interview the University was pleased to be able to open the garage and fulfill a major need on campus.

“The medical center area has seen the greatest growth in new employees over the past decade, yet no additional parking spaces have been added in this part of campus,” he wrote. “Many employees have been inconvenienced by having to park greater distances from their workplace or spend time hunting for a space.”

However, in a series of community meetings in both 2008 and in 2012, residents expressed concerns about the structure’s impact on the city ranging from increased traffic to environmental complications and aesthetic problems with the way the building matched others nearby.

In 2008, the Ann Arbor City Council got involved by passing a resolution asking the University to pause plans, which led to the unsuccessful attempt at partnership later that year.

Executive Parking Director Steve Dolen said the garage did receive more attention than can be typical.

“This one, there may have been more of a level of engagement because of the proximity to private residence,” he said. “But I think there’s always a level of community engagement with our projects.”

The final design of the newly-opened garage included several features designed to address community concerns, including a rain garden for runoff, a layered pattern of darker brick to blend more with surrounding buildings and panels detailing the street’s history.

However, Tim Mortimer, president of the Riverside Park Place Condominium Association, said nearby residents remain dissatisfied with the final product.

“None of the genuine concerns were addressed,” he said. “They essentially put lipstick on a pig.”

He cited unresolved issues of increases in traffic and noise as well as potential danger to children from busier streets, adding that the environmental impact from the pressure of 700 additional vehicles in the area also remains a broader, fundamental split of interest between the city and the University.

“The last thing the city needs is to have more single-occupant vehicles commuting back and forth near the center of the city and back out again,” Mortimer said. “What’s needed is the University to be genuinely committed (to environmental stewardship.)”

This isn’t the only University project in recent years to run into issues due to a location on the edges of campus. When North Quadrangle was proposed in 2006, original designs were rejected by the regents because of concerns about walkability and fit. Several features, including the courtyard, were added to help blend the building more with its surroundings.

Kosteva said the primary consideration when deciding to build on outer parts of campus is whether the project fulfills the University’s core purposes.

“We are attempting to provide the residents and the taxpayers of the state of Michigan, and our student and our healthcare customers, with quality facilities to provide research and teaching and healthcare environments that satisfy and enhance our mission,” he said.

He added that while he hoped residents would agree that community input was incorporated in the garage, he recognized that they were advocating for other uses for the space.

“You would understandably get two different opinions about the extent of accommodation and how much of the commentary and comments are reflected in it,” he said. “I think, as I outlined, this was a case where the University did listen, and we did hear the expressions of concern and the expression of interest regarding the architectural treatment and the facility’s impact on the neighborhood.”

In the end, Councilmember Sabra Briere (D– Ward 1), whose ward includes the project, said legally there’s not much recourse available to residents. The University isn’t currently obligated to compromise with the city on this, or on other construction projects.

However, she added that while she recognized the University’s desire to meet its needs, she hopes in the future they’ll do it in a way that’s more conciliatory with the city.

“I don’t fault the University for having its own agenda,” she said. “I just wish that they’d recognize that other people and groups have rights as well.”