Audubon Society raises concerns over migratory roost for protected birds

Wednesday, September 26, 2018 - 5:18pm

Cathy Theisen, conservation chair at the Washtenaw Audubon Society, explained chimney swifts roost during the fall and spring to keep warm before migrating back to South America.

Cathy Theisen, conservation chair at the Washtenaw Audubon Society, explained chimney swifts roost during the fall and spring to keep warm before migrating back to South America. Buy this photo
Emma Richter/Daily

When locals approach Ann Arbor YMCA, they may see a swarm of what looks like bats flying in the fall sky. However, these are chimney swifts, a protected bird species under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act that live in the old chimney at 415 W. Washington St.

The two-story brick industrial building, located in Ann Arbor’s historic district, was created for the Michigan Milling Company in 1907 before becoming the operations center for the city’s Parks and Recreation Department. The city vacated the property in 2007 and currently uses it for limited storage.

Since City Council began publicly considering demolition of the deteriorating building, the Washtenaw Audubon Society has been raising awareness around the area about the habitual migratory spot for the birds, urging the council to preserve the chimney as a free-standing structure for the protected species.

Cathy Theisen, conservation chair at the Washtenaw Audubon Society, explained chimney swifts roost during the fall and spring to keep warm before migrating back to South America. Chimney swifts used to roost in trees until they were cut down.

“They usually would have roosted in old grove trees that were hollowed out once they died,” Theisen said. “But, in the early 1900s, all the old grove trees were taken … there are so few trees left for them that they adapted to living in urban environments.”

As of August, the Washtenaw Audubon Society had recorded 1,400 birds roosting in the chimney. Theisen said the birds provide an ecological advantage for the area because they eat one-third of their weight daily in insects such as mosquitoes, termites and wasps.

Kathy Griswold, who won the Ward 2 Democratic primary for City Council and is now uncontested in the general election, is concerned with council decisions becoming more based in emotion than facts.

“One of my concerns is are we going to have a formal decision-making process to decide what to do with the building?” Griswold said. “Frequently we get input from the community but it’s more just (a lot of emotion) gets interjected and we don’t have the facts and a framework to make the decision.”

Theisen says the council has been very responsive to Washtenaw Audubon Society in finding a conservation solution.

“My belief is that the city wants to cooperate,” Theisen said. “Obviously, they’re going to have to (decide) what the citizens want. That is why it is so crucial that any Ann Arbor voter who wants to preserve this chimney contact Council.”

Councilmember Anne Bannister, D-Ward 1, said she and Mayor Christopher Taylor drafted a proposal for presentation at the City Council’s Oct. 1 meeting, which she assured puts the needs of the chimney swifts before development of the property.

Theisen said the beauty of the chimney swifts resonates with residents.

“I heard one woman tell me that on 9/11 after she watched the buildings go down that the only thing she could think to do was go out and look at the (chimney swifts) just to see something natural is instead of what was going on in the world,” Theisen said.

City officials are considering redevelopment of the dilapidated city-owned building. City Administrator Howard Lazarus said the city is still exploring options regarding the development of the property.

“There are no definitive plans right now. The City’s intent is to explore options concerning the chimney and the swifts as part of the redevelopment process,” Lazarus wrote.

Griswold believes the chimney should be preserved and the rest of the building torn down.

“That building I think is an eyesore and is unsafe and it really needs to come down independent of the chimney, especially the part that comes close to the road,” Griswold said. “I just don’t see where the city would allow a private company to have that kind of a building standing the way it is.”

While no distinct plans are scheduled, the city has been previously approached by multiple realtors, according to MLive. One realtor, Bud Falsetta with Real Estate One, proposed a senior living facility owned by Morningstar Senior Living based in Denver. Conducted assessments have shown it is not worthwhile to rehabilitate the buildings due to costs and structural concerns.

Griswold said she hasn’t seen any reports from the city staff, saying city government operates on political motives rather than data.

“The culture of City Council and city staff for the last couple of decades just hasn’t really been data driven.” Griswold said. “They’ve been more politically driven.”

City records also allude to pollution concerns of contaminated soil under the property. According to Historic District Application Records, the property’s building code cannot be changed due to the flood elevations of the site. A DRN Architects report concluded the building is not a good candidate for rehabilitation or reuse.

The Washtenaw Audubon Society has currently raised approximately $5,000 to donate toward preservation efforts. In its letter written to the council, the society said they hope to see the chimney serve as a natural history site.

“This is a way we can really change our environment with a very small bit of action,” Theisen said.