Schlissel talks town-gown partnership

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By Emma Kerr, Daily Staff Reporter
Published September 16, 2014

As University President Mark Schlissel settles in on campus and in Ann Arbor, he brings with him a new perspective on how the University should interact with the city.

In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Schlissel said he views Ann Arbor as an asset and an ideal location for the University. But he is also aware of the tension that has existed in past years between the city and the school, aggravated by the University’s land purchases, which results in a loss of property taxes for the city.

He said he hopes to see future town-gown interactions characterized by “transparency and open communication” to prevent the deterioration of the relationship between Ann Arbor and the University.

“There is a friction but I think some of it is more misunderstanding than friction,” Schlissel said. “We’re not here to be predatory land owners; we have tons of land.”

The University owns an estimated 1,719.2 acres of property within the city limits of Ann Arbor, which has a total of 18,272.6 acres according to the city’s environmental coordinator. This estimate does not include the University’s recent purchase of the Edwards Brothers property, but does include property owned by the University for water. While the University currently owns approximately 9.4 percent of Ann Arbor land, Schlissel said he does not expect any large land purchases in the near future.

“The University is in a great position because we already have tons of land, and I don’t think we really have to acquire significant amounts of land to do all of the growth that we can afford for quite some time,” he said.

While Schlissel is new to town, Councilmember Christopher Taylor (D–Ward 3), who has spent the last six years on City Council and is currently Ann Arbor’s Democratic nominee for mayor, said he looks forward to bringing his years of experience to the table when addressing University-city relations.

“I think that having a new president and a new mayor is an excellent opportunity to increase communication and I am delighted to hear President Schlissel emphasize that and I certainly echo that,” Taylor said. “I know he’s still learning about Ann Arbor and the community and that he is very excited to do so.”

Taylor said he intends to fully convey the city’s perspective on the University’s expansion and purchasing of land following the general election on Nov. 4. For his part, Schlissel said he hopes to become an active member of the city and to be viewed as a resident, constituent and colleague of the mayor.

Both the University and the city are public entities, meaning they receive funding from the state at large, but they each serve two very different groups of the Ann Arbor community with distinct missions and needs.

Jim Kosteva, the University’s director of community relations, said despite the occasionally conflicting functions of each entity, the economic and cultural benefits the University provides for Ann Arbor outweigh any negative impact the on the city.

“On occasion, our efforts to serve the public at the University will generate a conflict with what the city sees at its mission to serve the community’s general public,” Kosteva said. “Consistently our efforts and our hope is that the activities that the University does undertake end up having a net overall positive impact.”

Schlissel also addressed issues beyond taking land off the city’s tax rolls, including “student noise, dropping red plastic cups and scoreboards that flash.” Residents regularly file complaints in relation to student partying, game day activities and general disruption in residential areas. University and city officials feel they are tasked with responding to the needs of students and residents, which often appear to be in opposition.

“We have to talk through these issues and be respectful of the fact that it’s a town with a lot of people living here who aren’t members of the University,” Schlissel said. “I know that the University brings huge economic advantages and cultural advantages to the community, and the community as I said becomes a wonderful place for us to recruit students and faculty to, so I think we just need to be respectful of one another.”

Daily News Editor Sam Gringlas and Daily News Reporter Claire Bryan contributed to this report.