A New Ann Arbor Train Station: Time to Weigh In

Recently the prospect of a new train station in Ann Arbor has supplanted the library lot has the most talked about and controversial local civic issue. With public comments on the Environmental Assessment Report due today, November 2nd, it’s time to weigh in.


The report mentioned above was released by the city and Federal Railroad Administration back in in September stating the preffered alternative is to build a new train station and adjacent parking deck on a parking lot in Fuller Park. The history of a new station in Ann Arbor is exhaustive and has been covered impeccably by Ryan Stanton of the Ann Arbor News as well as by fellow blogger Vivienne Armentrout at Local in Ann Arbor (who may be the most informed person in town on this issue).  There’s also a great take by Doug Kelbaugh, Dean Emeritus at the Taubman College of Architecture & Urban Planning over at All Aboard on Depot Street.

Given the depth of information available on the subject, I will attempt to just briefly summarize the situation to date.  The vision for expanded rail and a new station in Ann Arbor goes back a long way, notably to John Hieftje’s Mayor’s Model for Mobility in 2006 that was partly the basis for the City of Ann Arbor’s Transportation Plan, adopted in 2009. This laid out a plan for a new intermodal station on Fuller Road to serve Amtrak and commuter rail to Detroit with a link to a seperate proposed light rail route, what later became the Ann Arbor Connector. The University is obviously a major stakeholder and it was suggested that the project be combined with additional parking for UM, predominantly health system students and staff. In the interest of brevity (highly recommend Vivienne’s article linked above for the full tale), the plan fell through, the university built a new parking deck on Wall Street, commuter rail as part of the RTA Master Plan failed at the ballot box in 2016 and the Connector is in limbo due to the enormous cost. So here we are trying to decide what to do with a decrepit existing Amtrak station with more questions than answers. On to my take.

I have something of a unique viewpoint on the train station in that I take Amtrak all the time. Like all the time. I took the train from Ann Arbor nearly 50 times in 2016, I’m taking it today. I even started a spreadsheet this year keeping track of my trips and times so that I had good anecdotal data for posts like this (average delay of 15:37 in 2017 thus far). It’s an imperative link for my job and provides connectivity and productivity that cannot be replicated with other forms of transit at this time.

That said, do we need a new station? Probably? The current one is small and seriously dated, not ADA compliant and the parking is a joke. There are plans to add service that should continue to increase ridership and Ann Arbor’s station is both the worst station on the line and the busiest. Should it be built in Fuller Park as a massive parking deck with sidecar station for a cost approaching $100 million?  Definitely not.


Look hard, there’s a station there somewhere.

The only real positives of Fuller Park over another site is the proximity to the hospital and potential connectivity to the Connector. The argument has been made that the hospital location is important for commuter rail which I find dubious. The line may never happen (I’ve harped on the foolishness of a line that connects A2 to New Center) and let’s remember this line is geared towards Ann Arbor area residents traveling to Detroit, much less so the other way around (there may be 10,000+ employees at the health system, there’s 20+ times that in the greater downtown Detroit area).  A platform could be built on Fuller Park if needed in the future. The Connector, ahem, connection, would be great but the prospect of that project is dim given the astronomical cost. Betting on that line seeing the light of day is a low odds gamble.


On the negative side, Fuller Park is, in fact, a park. While currently used for UM parking, it could and should be a public use riverfront park, not a massive parking structure. Also, while close to the hospital, it’s not close to anything else. There are no Transit Oriented Development opportunities, no neighborhoods nearby, no proximity to downtown.

The existing location on Depot Street has always been a train station, is near downtown and Lowertown, is on a major transit corridor via Broadway/Plymouth Road and offers some unique attributes with the DTE site next door. In short, if a new station should be built, it should go there.

The report gives a number of economic reasons for Fuller Park, a large one hinges on the expanding of the Broadway bridges (unnecessary in the short term) and the acquisition of DTE and Amtrak-owned land (estimated at $6.7M-$12M). How much should it cost to acquire Amtrak land for a new Amtrak station? I think a fair number is $0 but whatever it is, it’s low. What the report fails to take into account is that acquisition of environmentally contaminated land from DTE should also be cheap, in fact the opportunity to partner with DTE on the parking aspect of a future project on that land could very well be a net positive. While the new station needs more parking than it has now (often over capacity in my experience, the current lot is a muddy free for all), it does not need nearly 1,000 spaces unless a million transit positive things happen over the next 25 years. Parking in the short term could be tucked below Broadway and shared with a DTE project. Additionally, there are great opportunities for development and neighborhood connectivity with a transit hub. Fuller offers none of that.

We have a great opportunity here to build a new transit hub for Ann Arbor, a gateway to our town. Expanded train service with all new trains (currently on order) should result in increased ridership (side note: actual ridership projected to increase 19% this year from a construction addled 2016, up 45% over the past 20 years but just 0.5% over the past 10, true increases will require more scheduled runs, better service or higher gas prices). Building a massive parking deck in Fuller Park seems a move geared towards UM parking, takes over an existing park and offers no unique opportunities other than a link to a long shot Connector project.

Depot Street offers the chance to build in a historic location near downtown, create synergies on the DTE site and Lowertown and still connect to strong transit links via Broadway. Properly executed and phased, the project could start at less than half of current cost estimates and grow as needed with ridership and commuter rail links. Our transit future is uncertain with autonomous vehicles on the horizon so investments made now need to be incredibly prudent. Modest, phased construction at the current location is the best path forward.




Reimagining Burns Park

This blog is ostensibly about downtown Ann Arbor but I live in Burns Park and walk through the park itself every day.  Basically I couldn’t help sharing a few thoughts on some ways to improve it.


Let’s get this out of the way, Burns Park is fantastic.  It is the quintessential neighborhood park.  The gorgeous Burns Park Elementary School forms its western flank and the park itself contains almost everything one could ask for: ball fields, tennis courts, play equipment, a senior center and a shelter building.  It’s one of the biggest reasons we bought a home in the neighborhood.  People may literally yell at me for suggesting we change a thing.  That said, like so much of our infrastructure, some facilities are showing signs of age and part of the point of this blog is to look around and say, “This is great but how could it be even better and how do we position it for the next generation?”  First, of course, a little history.

The land where Burns Park currently sits is the former home of the Washtenaw County Fair Association, established in 1890 but used for various fair and equestrian activities long before that.  The land was purchased by the city for a public park in 1910, naming it Burns Park in honor of George P. Burns, a University of Michigan botany professor and inaugural member of the Park Board.  The city continued to lease a portion of the land to the Ann Arbor Driving Club for a horse track until 1921.  The double row of linden trees there now roughly duplicates the original path of the track, seen clearly below (don’t worry there are a couple little saplings doing their best to fill that gap in the southwest corner).


The mound of dirt that had been at the center of the track was moved to the southern edge of the park and is now colloquially known as “Magic Mountain”, a popular mini sledding hill for generations of Burns Park children.  The current shelter, built in 1957, replaced an 1898 log cabin and the Senior Center is an expansion and renovation of the old horse barn originally built in 1912.  In 1925 the city sold the western portion of the park to the school board for the site of the Tappan School.  When Tappan moved to its current location on Stadium Boulevard in 1951, the building was renamed Burns Park Elementary School and has housed grades K-5 ever since.  There have certainly been minor improvements and changes but the 15-acre park has remained essentially unchanged since the 1950’s.

Okay, background history established.  On to the future.  Below are a few ideas for Burns Park, loosely in order of priority and/or awesomeness.

The Shelter/Warming Hut

The Burns Park Shelter, used as a warming hut in the winter, was built in 1957 in the northeast corner of the park.  It’s a pretty basic, low slung brick building with restrooms, a garage area and a community room with a kitchenette.  There’s a little outdoor area with some barbecue grills, the building is available for rent for $137 per day for a summer weekend.


In my experience this building is in actual use about a dozen times a year, perhaps a little more this past year when the ice rink was installed.  Here’s my idea: lease the majority of the building to a private user.  It might require a renovation and expansion of the building (and I think a portion of the building needs to remain available for public use) but that could be financed by the lease payments of the tenant.  The ideal tenant in my mind?  The good folks over at Argus Farm Stop.  Argus is a year round farmers market and coffee shop that in just a couple years has become the heart of the Old West Side neighborhood.  Can you imagine having something like that at the epicenter of Burns Park?  Let’s take it up a notch (since this is fantasyland right now anyway) and imagine a pairing with Argus neighbor Blank Slate Creamery for ice cream.  Coffee in the morning, local farm shopping during the day and ice cream on a summer evening?  Sign me up.  (Side note: I know the Dairy Queen has its loyal following but come on, DQ’s are everywhere and you have to walk across 5 lanes of traffic and a gas station to get there.)

I don’t personally know Bill and Kathy at Argus or Janice at Blank Slate but perhaps one of the 11 readers of this blog do.  Any plan would obviously take cooperation from the city and Parks and Recreation as well.  I’m excited about this idea in particular so perhaps we can get some traction.

Community Gardens

This one is a no brainer.  The majority of the lots in Burns Park are relatively small and old growth trees, while lovely, make gardening at home a near impossibility for many people.

Project Grow has been facilitating community garden plots in Ann Arbor since 1972 and now boasts 15 sites around the city providing over 350 individual plots.  Some locations have as few as 5 plots.  There are a number of out of the way areas within the park that could support 5-10 plots depending on the amount of sunlight required.  There are some fairly wild areas behind and adjacent to the tennis courts that could be a fit or perhaps the northeast corner of the park that is actually across Baldwin Ave?  That site is usually home to one lonely picnic table and is rarely used.

I would be shocked if a small community garden site in Burns Park didn’t have a waiting list a mile long if implemented.

Senior Center Expansion/Redevelopment

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a little out of my depth when it comes to the Senior Center.  I don’t fit the target demographic and as such I’ve never set foot in the building.  That said, it seems to fill a need and from what I can tell keeps fairly busy most days.  It requires a membership, is open most weekdays from 9-4 and can be rented after hours for various events.


The Senior Center is a nice amenity to the park and the neighborhood but I think there’s untapped potential there.  I would propose a new, larger building that would be open to people of all ages.  Something with open space and community rooms on the ground floor that could keep up with programming catering to seniors and perhaps a second floor with a fitness center and more space that could serve families and people of all ages.  The Burns Park Social Club has a nice ring to it.  Parking could be an issue but hopefully you could control that through parking passes and/or membership priority for neighborhood residents.

This looks like a mini YMCA in my minds eye and a really strong neighborhood amenity, a town hall of sorts for Burns Park.

Baseball/Soccer Field Realignment

As a huge baseball fan this pains me a bit but the American youth sports landscape has changed.  The interior of the tree ring (I call this the Great Lawn in my head) contains two baseball diamonds which take up the majority of the space.  Fields for soccer, ultimate frisbee and football are sort of jury-rigged around the infields.

Again, it pains me as a baseball fan but we could probably stand to eliminate one diamond and put up some permanent soccer goals there.  Both diamonds are in mediocre shape at best and are rarely in use at the same time but there are often 3-5 soccer games or practices going on at once.  Most of the space should probably remain flexible but one legitimate soccer field would likely find good use.  Side note: Please no field turf.  I get the advantages but let’s just leave Burns Park regular old grass, dandelions and all.


Like virtually all parks in the city, most of the infrastructure could use a face lift.  I mentioned the ball diamonds above, the basketball court is also in need of a resurface.  The play equipment is a mixed bag but my favorite is the old wading pool that now sports the super popular funnel ball pole (when was this ever a thing? I remember a brand new one at our elementary school in the early 80’s that wasn’t cool then).  There’s also a couple Pétanque courts that were built with the best intentions back in 2009 but I’ve walked by probably 100 times in the last year and have yet to see them in use.  The entrance signage is faded and the whole park could probably use a bit of color, flowers, etc.  Not too much, Burns Park is and should always be more about function than beauty.


That’s what I’ve got for now.  Just a few ideas that have bounced around the ol’ noggin as I’ve walked through the park with the dog, annoying my lovely wife with half baked schemes.  Please feel free to share any more in the comments or via your social media of choice.  You can find TreeDownTown on Twitter or Instagram.


The Calvin – 124 Unit Apartment Tower Coming to Huron Street

A 12 story, 124 unit apartment tower will be coming soon to the parking lot between the newly renovated Graduate Hotel and the Sloan Plaza Condominiums.


The project is being developed by Core Spaces, the team behind the winning Collective on 5th proposal for the Library Lot.  Unlike the highly controversial Foundry Lofts development just down the street at the corner of Huron and Division, The Calvin practically sailed through the site plan approval process.  Both the city and project neighbors praised the developers for their outreach and willingness to work with nearby property owners and residents.  Although the building maxes out the 120 foot height limit, the total square footage of 132,939 represents a floor area ratio (FAR) of just 515%, well below the 700% maximum allowed with premiums.

As such, The Calvin received a clear stamp of approval from the planning commission in a 6-0 vote and went on to unanimous approval from city council.  If that’s not shocking enough, not a single Ann Arborite spoke out against the plan at the council meeting, instead a smattering of praise was heaped on the development team.  President of the Old Fourth Ward Association, a vehement and outspoken opponent of the Foundry Lofts had this to say: “I have been in on many, many, many development meetings with developers and never before have I dealt with a group of people where they sought us out and they sought to build not only a handsome building, but a building that would not negatively impact the neighbors. This is a rarity.”

Of course it helps that the project is on a block of Huron that features four high rise structures and is sandwiched in between two on an underutilized parking lot.  It’s a large and somewhat oddly shaped parcel that naturally provides a fair amount of setback between the building and neighboring houses to the rear.


In short, there’s not a whole lot to complain about aside from the usual gripes about parking.  There will be 108 parking spaces and 54 bike spaces.  Given the walkability of the location and access to public transit, this should be more than sufficient  (remember folks, building more parking encourages automobile use, bad for the roads, bad for the environment and requires more parking elsewhere).  I wouldn’t have minded seeing some retail here but it’s a tough location for it so I can live without here.

The property will be marketed towards students as well as young professionals and other market rate tenants with rents ranging from $999 to $5,200 per unit.

Much like the planning commission and city council, I don’t have much else to say.  Looks good, fills a gap wasted by a parking lot and provides more housing which can only help to bring more energy and vitality to the area.  Best of luck guys.


Disclosure: I know most of the folks over at Core personally.  I’ve tried to be non-biased here, it really is hard to find too much fault with the proposal.


Argus Farm Stop Expansion

It’s rare that a place opens and immediately becomes an indispensable part of the community.  Sometimes, a business at once fills a void we didn’t know existed and also epitomizes the culture and character of a neighborhood.  For the Old West Side, just off the western edge of downtown Ann Arbor, that place is Argus Farm Stop.


Husband and wife team Bill Brinkerhoff and Kathy Sample opened Argus not two years ago in August, 2014 in an old service station at the corner of Liberty and 2nd.  A year round farmers market and coffee shop, Argus quickly became the de facto meeting place for the neighborhood.  The quick popularity and success however seems to have put a strain on the already tight confines of the space.  Last summer they announced plans to add a 556 square foot greenhouse to the front of the building, effectively increasing their space over 40%.

Work is finally underway and should go relatively quickly.  I wish them the best of luck in their expansion, this is a regular coffee and occasional grocery/lunch stop for me.  Pro tip: Matteo serves up awesome barbecue from a serious smoker in the front parking lot on Fridays and Saturdays.  Highly recommend it.

Birth of the Blog!

I live and work in Ann Arbor.  I love this town, I moved here purely because I love the town, it was home for me.  I work in real estate and have a passion for cities, the way they develop and grow and the way people interact with their changing dynamics.

My mind is constantly dwelling on topics of transit, real estate development projects, parks and social change.  This blog is meant to be an outlet for those ideas.

I hope to provide some additional information and insight on the many changes to our fair city and a few opinions along the way.

Follow me on Instagram and drop me a line any time!