COMMENTS ON AMTRAK STATION LOCATION
Doug Kelbaugh FAIA
Emil Lorch Collegiate Professor of Architecture and Urban Planning, 2016 winner of the National Topaz Medallion for Excellence in Architectural Education, and Dean Emeritus Taubman College of Architecture & Urban Planning, University of Michigan
As a 19-year Ann Arbor resident, an architect, urban designer and professor, I’ve taught two graduate level design studios that closely examined the Depot Street site. Two large models and accompanying design booklet of the work were featured in City Hall for almost a year. I write as a private citizen who lives downtown diagonally across Ann St. from City Hall.
I was deeply disappointed to read about the City’s decision on the Amtrak station location. Here are the many reasons, as succinctly as I can put them, plus a critique of speci!c oversights or flaws in the FRA report:
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 or its selected developers) on this large, open and well-located site. My studies have shown that well over 1000 people could live and/or work on the extended site, without building in the floodplain, in addition to people who could shop, dine, drink and even stay at a classic railroad hotel there. (This large, high density TOD (Transit-Oriented Development) site offers a timely development alternative to the diminishing opportunities for development of D1 sites downtown, as well as generating considerable tax revenue for the City.) Moreover, the station can be serviced by not one, but two major streets, providing the much-needed capacity for drop-off/pick-up and entrances on two levels. The Broadway Bridge was built to be expandable from its current four lanes to six lanes, allowing for a vehicular drop-off lane at the upper level of the station. As for the problem of Depot Street backing up at rush hour, there’s sufficient width west of the Broadway Bridge for another lane on Depot St., which could switch direction to accommodate rush hours.
The Fuller Rd. site is located on what I have described as a long stretch of road that connects the center and older two-thirds of Ann Arbor across the Huron River Valley to the newer third on the NE of the City. (The fact that it’s a road rather than a street immediately brings into question whether it’s a suitably urban site for what should be an intensive, lively, mixed-use station urban hub.) It’s not well connected with the Ann Arbor grid/network of streets, and is a busy vehicular thoroughfare, with heavy congestion multiple times per day and a serious bottleneck at Maiden Lane. I shudder to think about how congested it will be with up to 20 daily Amtrak trains plus an unknown number of commuter trains in either direction loading and unloading numerous passengers – not to mention up to 1300 parked cars loading and discharging on Fuller Rd., on top of taxis, transit vans, buses, cyclists and pedestrians. Even if these numbers are high by a factor of two, the congestion is still extreme!
Having planned urban plans with traffic circles in my professional career, I fail to see how a two-lane roundabout can mitigate such heavy vehicular traffic, not to mention pedestrians and cyclists, which are sure to increase in number. Nor is there space for a grade-separated intersection. Neither 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 a total of only four lanes of through traffic, vs. a total of eight, possibly nine, lanes on Depot and Broadway. That’s a very signi!cant difference in capacity, especially when you consider there are also twice as many sidewalks and more opportunities 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, much-lamented if not cursed bottleneck as Amtrak and MDOT ramp up their service, especially for incoming ambulances.
As for the thousands of UM Medical Center employees, patients and visitors, they could take a half-mile rail shuttle from the Depot Street site. Or commuter trains could stop at both the Depot St. station, and a covered platform or small station at the Fuller Rd. stop. It is true that many people visit and work at the Medical Center, 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 and visitors, whereas week-long commuters to or from Chicago, Kalamazoo, etc. could live and work in or near the TOD. Last, should The Connector ever materialize, its route could include stops at both the Fuller and Depot sites.
The two Depot Street options (2A and 2B) that the FRA determined had no prohibitive environmental consequences, are closer to downtown, with the obvious connectivity to thousands of jobs, residences, stores, institutions and other destinations. This TOD location has the added benefit of incentivizing DTE to both clean up the balance of its contaminated site for a public park, and to develop buildings on a deck over multi-level parking on the open land outside of the flood plain. (Otherwise it is likely to languish for years.)
If there is pressure from UM and the City’s budgetary constraints, a roughly $10 – $15 million difference in the realization of the station shouldn’t be a determining factor for a key civic project that will last for a half century or more. This is an Ann Arbor-wide decision, more important than moving UM students and employees between remote parking, North and Central Campus on Blue Buses or perhaps on The Connector someday. It’s about more than optimizing rail intercity travel and local transit, as critical as that is. It’s ultimately about seizing a chance to add a new, mixed use urban core, which will help keep Ann Arbor livable, accessible, pleasant and free from further auto-dominated sprawl with its attendant impacts of carbon emissions on the environment and extreme weather. It’s also about doing our share as a relatively wealthy and high-consumption community to mitigate global climate change.
Ann Arbor compares to another university and research city, Austin, Texas (a city from which our City Administrator and CFO recently came). Ann Arbor today has the same population that Austin had in the 1980s, but our current growth rate exceeds Austin’s historical rate of 4%. We don’t want to sprawl in the way Austin has in recent decades. We must plan our growth, and how we build transit infrastructure can help shape it in ways most all of us seem to want. To quote my UM urban design colleague, who hails from Austin: “To build a train station in what is essentially a ‘no growth’ zone (in parkland on a congested road) is utterly, utterly stupid.” This decision is an historic opportunity to enhance our urban core with a vibrant new, multi-valent center and entrance to our city, as well as reduce our collective ecological, energy and carbon footprint as climate change rears its ugly head.
I also find the FRA’s recommendation of the Fuller Rd. site to be flawed with several questionable points:
Much if not 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). It seems logical that a mutually beneficial deal could be struck.
A good 95% or more of riders on two of the UM blue bus lines have no need or desire to embark or disembark on Fuller Rd, as do many if not most of the other ridership. Indeed, these riders, who are overwhelmingly students, will tend to resent this extra stop as they scurry back and forth between North and Central Campus (except for the relatively rare times they need to use the hospital or want to take the train).
The two Depot St. scenarios 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, which would sit beneath the development, must sit in the floodplain, but the habitable spaces could be raised above it. And in any case, concrete parking structures can be evacuated in times of flood and are relatively flood-resistant structures.
These well-meaning comments about impervious surfaces seem to be a relatively minor point when discussing a major urban civic investment that will likely serve AA for a half century or more during an era of increasing rail popularity and use.
As a citizen, I question whether land 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 hubs of urban life, 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 CC [Climate Change], extreme rain and heat waves.
Autonomous and electric vehicles will only help combat climate change if they are charged with clean electricity – not the power we get from our region’s plants that are over 60% fired by coal (and not scheduled to all be replaced until 2050) – and if the vehicles are not shared, there will very likely be even more personal vehicles congesting the station area, as well as the central city.
My professional opinion is that 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 here. It’s a decision with a 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 a rare opportunity to make a true and vibrant center of transportation, commerce, residence and civic life...I hope the decision will be revisited and reversed, after this welcome open public debate.
With sincere thanks for the opportunity to express my personal and professional opinion. Douglas S. Kelbaugh [signed]
October 12, 2017
(printed with permission)
Originally posted November 1, 2017