Keep 14 the Train Station on Depot Street for a Vibrant Civic Life and Transportation Hub

(Posted on by permission from the author, Doug Kelbaugh, FAIA)

From: Doug Kelbaugh

Subject: Amtrak Station Location

Date: October 3, 2017 at 11:53:48 PM EDT To: Raymond Detter

Cc: Susan Pollay


As promised, here’s my letter to Eli Cooper and Mayor Taylor at the City about the location of the station. Thank you for circulating it to the CAC members. I’ve also copied Susan Pollay, who attended this evening’s meeting.



Eli (and Chris),

As you can imagine from previous personal and public discussions, I was deeply disappointed to read about the City’s decision on the Amtrak station location.

Here’s why, as succinctly as I can put a complex case:

1. The Fuller Rd. site, hemmed in as it is by park land and the hospitals – foregoes the opportunity for a genuine urban railroad hub, bustling like all good train stations with all sorts of collateral mixed uses, activity and life. The Depot Street site could be surrounded with existing and, more importantly, new development by DTE’s selected developers on its large, open and well-located site. (This large, high density TOD site would offer a timely development alternative to the diminishing opportunities for development of D1 sites downtown.) Moreover, the station can be serviced by not one, but two major streets, providing the critical capacity of drop-off/pick-up and entrances on two levels. As for the issue of Depot Street backing up at rush hour, there’s suffcient width west of the B’way Bridge for another lane on Depot St., which could switch direction depending on time of day to accommodate rush hours.

2. The Fuller Rd. site is located on what I have described as the single, long, attenuated umbilical cord that connects two large parts of Ann Arbor separated by the Huron River Valley. (The fact that it’s a road rather than a street, immediately brings into immediate question whether it’s a suitably urban site for what should be an intensive, lively, mixed-use station area.) It’s a busy vehicular thoroughfare, with heavy congestion multiple times per day and a bottleneck at Maiden Lane. I shudder to think about how congested it will be with up to ten daily trains plus an unknown number of commuter trains in either direction loading and unloading numerous passengers – not to mention up to 1300 parked cars loaded and discharged on Fuller Rd., on top of the additional buses, taxis, transit vans, cyclists and pedestrians. I fail to see how a traffic circle can mitigate such heavy vehicular traffic, and there is not the space for a grade-separated intersection. Nor will additional travel lanes on Fuller work, because three lane roundabouts don’t function well and are dangerous. This means that the Fuller Rd. site is limited to only four lanes of through traffic, vs. a total of five, possibly six, lanes on Depot and Broadway. That’s a significant difference in capacity, especially when you consider there are twice as many sidewalks and more capacity for bike lanes. The Maiden-Fuller intersection will surely become an irreparable, much lamented choke point – one of the worst, perhaps the worst – in AA. It will be a notorious nightmare as Amtrak and MDOT ramp up their service.

(As for the thousands of UM Medical Center employees, patients and visitors, they could take a short rail shuttle from the Depot Street site. Or commuter trains could stop at both the Depot St. station, and a much smaller station or a covered platform at the Fuller Rd. stop)

3. The two acceptable Depot Street options (2A and 2B), both of which the FRA determined had no environmental consequences, are closer to downtown, with the obvious connectivity to thousands of jobs, residences, stores, institutions and other destinations. It is also true that many people work and visit near the medical complex, but it is not clear that Amtrak trains will accommodate many of their commutation budgets and schedules. Commuter rail is more likely to be used, but like Amtrak, it is limited in its catchment area for hospital employees, whereas week-long commuters to or from Chicago, etc. could live and work in or near the TOD.

Last, should the Connector materialize, it’s route could include stops at both the Fuller and Depot sites (regardless of UM’s preferences, as this is an AA-wide matter).

I find the FRA’s recommendation flawed with questionable points, the main paragraph of which I re- spond to in italics (for legibility, not dramatic effect):

“As addressed in Section 3, Build Alternative 3A can be developed on property currently owned by the City of Ann Arbor and MDOT;

Most of the Depot St. station site is owned by Amtrak (although the large parking structure would need to be built under mixed-use TOD development on the DTE site).

thereby eliminating the need for additional property acquisitions as well as maintaining the taxable base in the area. Existing surface transportation network capacity immediately adjacent to this location can accommodate projected additional trips utilizing Build Alternative 3A. Build Alternative 3A currently provides connections to 9 transit routes (AAATA – 2 and U‐M – 7).

As i have pointed out publicly, easily 95% or more of riders on the UM buses have no need or desire to embark or disembark on Fuller Rd. Indeed these riders, who are overwhelmingly (often 100%) students, will tend to resent this extra stop as they scurry back and forth between N. Campus to Central Campus (except for the relatively rare time they want to use the hospital or Amtrak).

This location is outside of the floodplain and therefore no impacts will occur to the floodplain or any designated floodways.The two acceptable Depot St. sites are not in the floodplain or floodway, and have adjacent, buildable land big enough for a viable TOD. It is true that the parking structure must sit in the floodplain, but it could be raised above it. And in any case,such structures are relatively flood-resistant

Build Alternative 3A will require the use of 3.2 acres of Fuller Park and will require review and comment by the City of Ann Arbor’s Parks Advisory Committee and the City of Ann Arbor Council’s approval. In addition, there are no floodplain or floodway impacts associated with Alternative 3A, and with the smallest development area it results in the lowest increase in impervious surfaces.

Why the observation about the flood-prone areas is repeated, I don’t understand. And the well-meaning comments about impervious surfaces seems to be a relatively minor point when discussing the planning and design of a major urban civic investment that will likely serve AA for a century or more during an era of increasing rail popularity and use.

Because Build Alternative 3A would be constructed on City‐owned property, it also has the lowest construction cost among the Build Alternatives.

As an architect, I question whether land price cost is or should be a major determinant in the design and planning of such an important nexus of activity? European train stations are important, essential urban cen-ters, as they once were in America and will likely become again. Rail commutation and intercity travel becomes all the more critical as congestion worsens, and the carbon emissions and ecological footprints of motorized personal vehicles continue to aggravate climate change, extreme rain storms and heat waves. (Autonomous and electric vehicles will only help with climate change if they are charged with clean electricity – not from our current power plants that are 2/3rds "red by coal – and if the vehicles are not shared, there will likely be even more personal vehicles congesting the station area.)

I personally and professionally think locating the station on Fuller Rd. would be the biggest single mistake made by the City in the almost two decades I’ve lived and worked in AA. It’s a decision with at least a century-long tail, as the Amtrak r.o.w is very unlikely to change. Not only is it going to be increasingly difficult to get to and from the station, as well as the medical complex (including incoming ambulances), the City is giving up an opportunity to make a true and vibrant center of transportation, commerce, residence, conferences, and civic life.

I hope the decision will be substantively revisited, with open public debate. Sincerely,


Doug Kelbaugh FAIA

Emil Lorch Collegiate Professor of Architecture and Urban Planning and Dean Emeritus Taubman College of Architecture & Urban Planning

University of Michigan

2000 Bonisteel Blvd., Ann Arbor, MI 48109-2069 on-depot-street/

[Originally posted October 9, 2017]