Residents accuse University of disregarding concerns about local transit center

Wednesday, March 2, 2016 - 6:13pm

After a tense meeting on Feb. 25 with University of Michigan officials, City Council members and local residents are openly calling for the University to halt its proposed North Campus transit center.

The $38.5 million Transportation Operations and Maintenance Facility — which is to be built on North Campus adjacent to several residential neighborhoods — is meant to act as a full-service garage for the University’s fleet of 1,000 buses and other vehicles. The project was approved by the Board of Regents in 2014, and the bidding process was initiated in February 2016.

While critics are not unified in their opposition to the facility, with complaints ranging from an increase in air pollution, traffic congestion and noise, there is consensus among some local residents that the University has advanced the project without public consent.

Because the University is a state entity, it is able to circumvent zoning requirements for new construction, and can therefore unilaterally undertake new projects without city approval.

City Councilmember Kirk Westphal (D–Ward 2) wrote a letter to University President Mark Schlissel last month to urge the project be paused until consent from the community can be reached. Kirk said Schlissel replied to his letter Feb. 26, assuring him that his concerns wouldn’t be ignored.

“We will consider your suggestion that the University be more thoughtful and responsive to neighborhood concerns when planning a facility that abuts a residential neighborhood,” Schlissel wrote to Westphal.

Westphal said in an interview Feb. 28 the speed with which Schlissel replied to his letter has made him confident that an agreement with the University can be reached.

“President Schlissel reached out very quickly to those of us who expressed concern, and we’re optimistic that this signifies a different kind of relationship than what U of M has had with city residents,” Westphal said. “I’ve been told by folks with a much longer history than I have in Ann Arbor that U of M has not responded this quickly to neighborhood requests."

Linh Song, School of Social Work lecturer and president of the Glacier Highlands Neighborhood Association, a leading opponent of the facility, said she is frustrated with the lack of transparency on the part of the University.

“It’s not that we’re anti-development … we’re just trying to understand why they chose this site for this purpose, when there are so many lots available that are not residential,” Song said. “We’re asking for environmental analysis, traffic reports, air quality … this is data that we hoped they would have on hand while getting so far along the process, and it’s not there.”

Song added she believes the University is speaking to the community in bad faith, pointing out that they had advanced the project despite promising to hear community input.

“Considering they’ve put the project out to bid, it seems like a disingenuous promise,” Song said.

Stakeholders from across northeast Ann Arbor convened on Sunday evening to organize a petition and letter-writing campaign to the regents to increase community input on the project. Song also said residents are planning to protest the next regents meeting with their children.

Jim Kosteva, the University’s director of Community Relations, wrote in an e-mail on Feb. 29 that resident concerns would not be ignored as this project proceeds.

“We are going to assess the comments made at last Thursday's meeting, determine what additional studies or evaluations may be necessary, and develop a more comprehensive response to resident concerns,” Kosteva wrote.