Transportation projects reignite city, University tension

Sunday, April 17, 2016 - 5:21pm

As the University of Michigan moves forward on several pushes to increase transportation infrastructure, long-existing tension has reemerged between two entities — the University and the city — who have had a complex relationship in areas like transportation for decades.

As a constitutionally created entity, the University — relocated from Detroit to Ann Arbor in 1837 — legally acts as an independent actor free from the control of the state legislature and city jurisdiction. However, its location at the heart of Ann Arbor means it often impacts residents, and while Ann Arbor has no direct control over this state entity, often the city finds itself tied to University issues, and vice versa.

City Councilmember Kirk Westphal (D–Ward 2), who has served on the council since November 2014, described the relationship between Ann Arbor and the University as “a marriage with no option of divorce.”

Akin to any long-term, he added, committed relationships, communication and compromise build the healthy foundation for mutual growth and understanding.

Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor — elected in November 2014 after serving on Council for three terms — acknowledged the University’s active presence in the city and its role as a primary engine in the community. He said both share similar end goals, but they differ in strategy and priority.

“I think there’s always going to be areas of intersection and impact, and that’s perfectly natural,” Taylor said. “With two repeat players like the city and the University, there are always going to be topics to talk about. But I think that in the end, our interests do not entirely overlap — that both institutions are benevolent and require the success of the other and have remarkably congruent long-term interests.”

Recent points of contention

Recently, the relationship has come to the forefront over several University infrastructure projects, which as an area have long been a point of contention.

The projects are largely new development plans that have received mixed feedback from different members of the community over past months. On Feb. 25, University officials and city residents met to discuss one of them — the University’s proposed Transportation Operations and Maintenance Center, initially planned to be built on Green Road between Hubbard Road and Baxter Road.

The $38.5 million facility — approved in a 2014 Board of Regents meeting — was scheduled to run 22 hours a day, seven days a week. The University began the process for obtaining a State of Michigan Department of Environmental Quality permit for the project in January 2016.

Social Work lecturer Linh Song, president of the Glacier Highlands Neighborhood Association, estimated about 100 residents and a handful of University officials and planners were in attendance at the meeting, with residents expressing concern about traffic, noise and environmental impact.

Song, one of multiple residents in opposition to the project, said the meeting was disappointing for residents because many had not realized how far along the University had already progressed with the plans.

In response to the meeting, more than 60 members of the surrounding area formed the North East Ann Arbor Community Coalition on Feb. 28 in opposition to the project. The group includes representatives from the Green Road corridor of Green Brier, Baxter Court, Glacier Highlands, Waldenwood and Vintage Valley.

In response to the opposition, University President Mark Schlissel announced in a March 12 letter that the University will pause the project and suspend the MDEQ permit application to further listen to community feedback and analyze the impact of the proposed facility.

“In the future, our efforts to consider community interests in designing and locating facilities will incorporate more direct formal community outreach earlier in our development approval process,” Schlissel wrote.

Song said for both the center, and for University projects in general, for residents like her it comes down to one thing — a need for greater collaboration between city and University.

“What we’re looking for is a really good response, a committed response, because we’re not leaving any time soon,” Song said. “If there’s going to be development up here, can it be something that our community can collaborate on, and can it be actually part of the neighborhood?”

In the future, Song she would like the University to act proactively and engage with the community early on in the development phases, stressing the need for city leaders, University leaders and community leaders to reach out to one another.

Westphal echoed Song’s sentiment, and said there was a need for greater city representation on University projects. He noted that during his time on City Council, the city has included a representative from the University during master planning exercises regarding land use. Making that practice mutual and commonplace, he said, would be appreciated by the city, especially if it becomes more connected to the University with the proposed construction of a light rail transit system.

In February, University and city officials announced a renewal of plans for the light rail, which has been a dormant project since 2013. It is ultimately slated to connect downtown, Central Campus, North Campus and the Medical Center, as well as southern parts of Ann Arbor to the Ross Athletic Campus and the Briarwood area.

“The city would love being included officially in that process on the University’s side, particularly with regard to North Campus,” Westphal said. “That land is shifting now, so that’s something we’ll continue to advocate for.”

Both Song and Westphal said they viewed current University responses to their concerns as an important chapter in University-city relations, with the hope that they may result in a renewed interest in greater collaboration.

Since the Feb. 25 meeting for the transit center, University officials have met with councilmembers and neighborhood representatives to discuss the matter in greater detail. In an April 15 letter, Jim Kosteva, University Director of Community Relations, updated residents on recent efforts to review community feedback and reevaluate “the objectives and specifics of the proposed Transportation and Operations Complex.”

Kosteva highlighted several efforts to measure the potential impact of the project in the letter, including gathering more information regarding traffic, storm water management and the logistical details of the center. Air quality and noise evaluation data is slated to be made available in the next few weeks, according to the letter, with future information to be released to residents as the University considers the issue.

“Simultaneously we can also confirm that we are in the process of evaluating a variety of options for the complex, including different building configurations and utilization of other site locations,” Kosteva wrote. “On behalf of everyone on the project planning team, we will be in touch again as we develop more information to share, likely in early May.”

Speaking to the University’s recent efforts in response to opposition on projects like these, Taylor praised engagement initiatives and said he views ongoing conversations as a learning opportunity.

“The current conversation over the Transportation Center provides a real opportunity for us to work better together,” Taylor said. “I believe President Schlissel and the Regents are approaching community relations in just the right way. They’re interested in being good neighbors and understand that our long-term interests are substantially aligned, and I look forward to continuing that relationship.”

NEA2CC, according to members, plans to continue organizing efforts during that process through venues such as Thursday’s Board of Regent’s meeting.

“We need to keep the momentum going until we get to the answer we all know in our hearts is the right one,” reads the NEA2CC website. “Our goal is to have 100+ supporters standing behind our three neighbors who have been selected to represent us.”

Increased collaboration

City officials highlighted another transportation project, the proposed light rail transit system, as a channel to improve communication and relations between all bodies. Officials from the City of Ann Arbor, the University of Michigan, the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority and the Downtown Development Authority are all collaborating on this project.

“I think it’s wonderful when the city, the University and the other governmental authorities have an opportunity to work together,” Taylor said. “I think good things happen when entities of good will collaborate, and I think the connector is a perfect example of that.”

Westphal also acknowledged the importance of future collaboration and the potential for growth in the city and University communities. However, he said at times, both entities have proven to support different missions and serve different constituents, making friction inevitable.

He noted that friction can also come from finances, because the city’s main source of income is property taxes, and the University, as a constitutionally created nonprofit entity, is exempt from paying property taxes.

“There’s always alarm when land is taken off the tax rolls,” Westphal said. “Any time land goes from taxed to untaxed, it impedes the city’s ability to fund services. I understand that years ago the University used to sell off unneeded parcels of land back to the private market, which would be wonderful to see.”

The University’s 29 land acquisitions since 1999 have meant the impact on finances are an ongoing discussion. In 2009, the University purchased the former Pfizer property and transformed it into the North Campus Research Complex — this resulted in a 4.8 percent decrease in the city’s property tax base, according to MLive.

Other acquisitions, such as the Munger Graduate Residences and the Edward Brothers Malloy printing company, also reduced the tax base, according to MLive.

“The financial issue is maybe not the most visible to the public, but it is one that really affects the city’s bottom line,” Westphal said.

However, he noted the issue is multidimensional and more complex than a simple reduction in revenue — the University does still pay utility charges to the city, and acquisitions are often a major driver for jobs as well, factors that are more difficult to put a price tag on. As of August 2015, 2,488 people were estimated to work at the NRC, and 15 new businesses had opened on Plymouth Road since June 2009, according to a 2015 annual report.

“It’s certainly not a black-and-white story,” Westphal said.

A symbiotic relationship

Despite the challenges associated with communication between the two entities, Taylor said there were multiple myriad benefits the University brings to the city and vice versa, describing the two parties as dependent on each other in many ways.

“The University brings the Ann Arbor community so much in terms of economic activity, cultural activity, social activity, vibrancy — it’s remarkable,” Taylor said. “Without the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor would be such a lesser place.”

He also attributed the relative stability of Ann Arbor during the economic recession — officially lasting from 2007 to 2009 — to the University, with the continuity of the campus community aiding in avoiding economic downturns.

“With the Great Recession, Ann Arbor had a difficult time of course, but our factory is never going to move overseas,” Taylor said. “Our factory is never going to shut down; our factory is never going to slow down. The University of Michigan provides an incredible ballast to the Ann Arbor community, which enabled us to weather the Great Recession in a way that was remarkable among communities in Michigan and the region.”

David Santacroce, associate dean for experiential education, professor at the Law School and chair for the Public Market Advisory Commission, said there are also many examples of the campus giving back to local communities in concrete, tangible ways.

In the Law School, Santacroce is responsible for the clinical program, overseeing ways in which students and faculty engage in creative problem solving to improve the surrounding community. These 18 clinics serve 1,800 to 2,000 clients a year, assisting people with a variety of problems for free, including legal services and business entrepreneurship.

“Clinics are places where we provide free legal services to people who can’t afford it, and we do about 90,000 hours of that a year in Washtenaw County,” Santacroce said. “In my mind, that’s the kind of give-back you’re looking for.”

Santacroce emphasized he does not see this relationship as city-versus-University — like Song, he said he considers the University and Ann Arbor residents as one community. Many projects, he added — such as ones he’s been involved in on the Public Market Advisory Commission to construct an improved, partially indoor farmers market space — serve everybody’s needs.

“The proposal to build this market is based on need and demand,” he said. “And a lot of that comes from customers and customers of that market are of many stripes, including people here transiently for the University, people here for two years or four years or six years because they’re at the University, people who live here and have to work at the University, and lots of people who live here and have nothing to do with the University,” Santacroce said. “So I think anything that benefits the community benefits everybody, and I think the University is just another community member.”

Taylor echoed Santacroce sentiment about quality of life provided by the city of Ann Arbor benefits the University’s current population and its recruitment process, pointing to himself as an example of the impact the city has on students, faculty and staff.

“People who come to the University of Michigan and don’t know Ann Arbor fall in love with the community. I certainly did,” Taylor said. “I came here for college and stayed for graduate school and law school and moved away as many people do. But I came back to Ann Arbor because it felt like a place that could be my home.”