On a Sunday afternoon in October, about 15 Ann Arbor residents gathered at the parking lot in Fuller Park. Bracing the cold wind, the group listened in as members voiced their concerns over the potential relocation of Ann Arbor’s railroad station from the current location on Depot Street to Fuller Park.
The meeting was hosted by Protect A2 Parks, an environmental advocacy group, as part of its All Aboard On Depot Street initiative and included a tour of the Fuller and Depot locations ahead of public commentary on the subject closing Nov. 2.
Ann Arbor resident Gwen Nystuen, who formerly served in the Park Advisory and Planning commissions, said Depot Street is a better spot for residents because of its proximity to Ann Arbor’s population centers and since it already has the buses it needs to take travelers elsewhere in the city.
“It’s a better location for most of the city population,” Nystuen said. “There are already the things you need around the station, such as two restaurants … and it’s a much shorter to the downtown area.”
The city released a draft environmental assessment report in September detailing options for the new Amtrak station. The report names the southern portion of Fuller Park, near the University of Michigan Hospital, as the preferred spot for a new train station and expanded parking facilities.
The station is slated to cost $86 million, after an accounting error of $5 million was discovered two weeks ago by Ann Arbor resident Rita Mitchell, a member of Protect A2 Parks.
This is not the first time Fuller Park has been named as a candidate for a new train station. In 2010, the Ann Arbor Planning Commission approved building a five-level, 977-space parking structure, with a train station to follow. The plan was put on hold due to lack of funds, and the University built a structure on Wall Street instead.
The parking lot that is set to be converted into a parking structure for the station has been rented out by the University from the city for $45,000 a year since 1993, according to Jim Kosteva, director of community relations for the University. Protect A2 Parks members said though the lease was only supposed to last 15 years, the University has been continually renewing the contract.
Mitchell pointed out how the hospital’s employees’ cars are parked in the lot after 5 p.m. every day, though after that time the lot is reserved for city residents.
“There’s a perception that the parking spaces are University-owned … and there’s a perception that it’s a parking lot and not really a park,” Mitchell said. “(There is a) perception that it has less value because it’s used for parking use.”
Ann Arbor resident Barbara Bach, another member of Protect A2 Parks, suspects the University supports the Fuller Park proposal because it still wants more parking space near the hospital. Bach argued there is no way of knowing for sure the University would not rent out a large amount of space again; she sees this as the city effectively subsidizing University parking.
“The city isn’t in the business of taking care of University parking,” Bach said. “We certainly want to be a good neighbor and be helpful but that’s not our concern here.”
However, Ann Arbor City Councilmember Zachary Ackerman, D-Ward 3, argued the city is simply gaining revenue that goes back into services on nearby neighborhoods and the lot takes little to no money to maintain.
“Any way that we can find a means to get money from the University to pay for the services they don’t pay for, that’s great,” Ackerman said.
Kosteva also said assertions that the University parking in the new structure were “premature and speculative.” Though he recognized there is a lack of parking space for hospital employees at the moment, he said there has been no discussion about parking yet between the city and University.
“There has been no conversations as to what, if any, parking would be made available to University employees at any potential station at that location,” Kosteva said.
Another major point of concern was traffic. According to the environmental assessment report, the Fuller Park will have only one point of entry: Fuller Road. The assessment calls for building a double roundabout to ease the traffic congestion that is predicted.
However, Nystuen is not convinced. She said for a complex structure like a double roundabout there are concerns about pedestrian safety that is not addressed in the assessment report.
“It doesn’t have any plans in it for how they would handle (pedestrians),” Nystuen said. “In fact … they just have a description saying, ‘Yes it will work, we have studied it and it will work.’”
Ackerman agreed with Nystuen about the roundabout concern, and contended even the current situation at the intersection between Fuller Road and East Medical Center Drive is dangerous. However, he emphasized the plan is still a work in progress and ensuring pedestrian safety will be top priority.
“If we’re going to be looking at roundabouts close to job centers … and closer to downtown urban walkable areas, we have to figure out a scheme to keep pedestrians and cyclists safe,” Ackerman said. “Securing this funding and finalizing this plan actually looks like in reality is going to be a many-year process that’s going to include the public every step of the way.”
Mitchell and others find sympathetic voices in the council, although they are in the minority in the chamber. In a previous interview, Councilmember Sumi Kailasapathy, D-Ward 1, questioned why the city is prioritizing the train station when there are numerous other challenges residents face.
“I don’t think the City can afford (20 percent) with (its) current needs,” Kailasapathy said. “With so many infrastructural needs that are coming up, affordable housing, and pedestrian safety and climate action … these need to be the main focus now.”
Ackerman urged those not convinced to give the proposal another chance, arguing the current infrastructure is out of date and a new, welcoming train station would be a prudent investment.
“The details are still coming and if they think anybody’s made a final decision, I don’t think that’s unfair,” Ackerman said. “I hope they move forward with us and make sure that the funding comes from the right avenues and make sure that the design is something that speaks to everybody in the community.”
As for Ann Arbor resident Nancy Shiffler, the chair of the Sierra Club’s Huron Valley Group, simple adjustments to the current station like an elevator to reach the other side of the station and a lift for people with disabilities to be able to climb up to the platform would be more than enough for now.
“We can do one thing at a time,” Shiffler said. “You could do it, and you could make it attractive and you would be tied in with the development and activity in the area.”