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Posted on Sun, Mar 7, 2010 : 5:45 a.m.

University of Michigan's 'future transportation' vision carries real estate implications for Ann Arbor

By Nathan Bomey

The University of Michigan realized it had to invest heavily in Ann Arbor’s transportation infrastructure after completing its $108 million acquisition of Ann Arbor’s ex-Pfizer site in 2009.

Now that realization is turning into action.

For mass transit activists like real estate developer Peter Allen, the university’s decision to host a “future transportation” forum Wednesday to discuss alternative transit options for Ann Arbor is encouraging. U-M plans to consider ways to better connect its north, central and medical campuses.

But investing in new transit options for Ann Arbor - perhaps trolleys, aerial tram or light rail - must coincide with a focused real estate development plan serving as a catalyst for economic growth in the region.

University of Michigan's "future transportation" forum

When: 7-9:30 p.m. March 10
Where: Stamps Auditorium (1226 Murfin Ave., Ann Arbor) on U-M’s North Campus
Cost: Free. Community invited to share input.
Objective: Discussion future transportation options that could better connect U-M’s north, central and medical campuses.
Experts: Leaders of West Virginia University’s personal rapid transit system, Minneapolis Light Rail, Cleveland’s Euclid Corridor, Unimodal Personal Rapid Transit, Clarian Health People Mover, Bombardier and Doppelmayr.

Allen, whipping around Ann Arbor on Thursday in his Chrysler minivan while we talked, laid out his vision for using the university’s alternative transportation ambitions to inject life into local real estate development.

Imagine a trolley that runs through U-M’s medical campus, up to north campus, through the Pfizer site, down Plymouth Road and straight to downtown Ann Arbor. This is the tour Allen likes to give.

A system like that creates enormous opportunities for development projects - particularly in the immediate proximity around the transit stops.

“You’ve got to create density and mixed use for two reasons,” Allen said. “One, to pay for it. And two, it’s the right thing to do for Ann Arbor.”

You can hear the cynics already. The university will do what’s right for the university, they’ll say, and if that ultimately benefits Ann Arbor, that’s just a bonus.

Perhaps. But Allen believes the university can’t tackle an expansive transportation infrastructure project without the city’s endorsement. The university, he said, needs a tax increment financing plan to fund the project.

U-M Director of Community Relations Jim Kosteva, who will moderate the transportation panel, said the university is still gathering ideas and is not ready to talk about financing.

“This is an opportunity for the university and interested parties to explore with us and hear with us transportation modalities that are being applied elsewhere around the country and to consider whether or not they might have merit for consideration here in the Ann Arbor community,” Kosteva said.

The university would reap enormous benefits from a groundswell of modern real estate development around the stops associated with a future trolley, aerial tram or intracity rail system.

Imagine the wide eyes of prospective U-M students when they realize they could live in an apartment located directly adjacent to a stop on the university’s aerial tram network. That kind of system could turn an annoying, 20-minute drive-and-park trip from the medical campus to north campus into a 5-minute aerial breeze. (Need a visual? Google “Portland aerial tram.”)

The university needs the city’s cooperation, of course. The city, in turn, needs the university to stop hoarding land and lease it for private development tied to its new transportation system. The ancillary effect: Revenue to fund the transportation system.

“There’s enough density here to make it work,” Allen said. “The university does not have a culture of working with the private sector. … Fortunately (U-M President) Mary Sue Coleman is determined to solve this problem in an enlightened way with key stakeholders.”

The university is taking the right steps by engaging national experts on future transportation options to speak at the forum Wednesday.

Will the university fully engage the private sector and local government before polishing its alternative transportation plan?

“How the city and other transportation partners will bring their goals and their objectives … into the mix is something that we certainly would anticipate as part of this connector study,” Kosteva said.

Before Wednesday’s panel discussion, Allen wants the experts to hop into his Chrysler and take his tour, which he’s given about 10 times.

“They need to be briefed on the marketplace before they get up in front of that crowd Wednesday night,” Allen said.

Because transportation is a real estate initiative. And “future transportation” will define future real estate.

Contact’s Nathan Bomey at (734) 623-2587 or or follow him on Twitter. You can also subscribe to Business Review's weekly e-newsletter or the upcoming breaking business news e-newsletter.


The Picker

Tue, Mar 9, 2010 : 7:34 p.m.

P, That's a nice story regarding your neurosis, but is your subjectivity on this matter really worth basing a 50 million dollar decision on?

P Beal

Mon, Mar 8, 2010 : 9:46 p.m.

I lived as a teenager in Lisbon where there are, in addition to buses, viable streetcar and short run electric train systems (Interurban equivalents) and a positive psychological subtlety to those systems never gets brought into a discussion like this: it is their manifest physical presence. I remember clearly having a sense of relief when I found tracks. All I had to do was wait and a tramcar would fairly quickly appear. It might not be the right one, but it gave me a reference to jump off from and get moving. I was always rewarded for trusting it. I never had the same feeling about the buses although they were dramatically more usable than any in the States except for some very large, well developed urban systems like New York, Seattle and Detroit (circa 1965). A similar sense of reassurance, even now, comes from waiting, by the tracks, for the train, subway or L to come. Ive always felt an uncomfortable uncertainty that a bus will ever appear at the bus stop. Merely a sign or bench or shelter with no dedicated physical manifestation of its connection to a working system. It is too ethereal. Ive always wondered if that insecurity is a real and shared phenomenon that contributes to the perceived, self-fulfilling belief that buses are unreliable and, so, not worth trying to use. If this is a real factor, then the question needs to be asked: is it worth the cost and inflexibility for the reassurance of tracks to train people to use public transit in a serious way? Or is there a better, cheaper, feasible way to address the problem? But then, Im biased; I LIKE streetcars.


Mon, Mar 8, 2010 : 7:22 a.m.

Just don't let the city get involved.

Val Losse

Sun, Mar 7, 2010 : 8:29 p.m.

And who will pay for this system? Who will pay for the maintenance of this system? H'mmm, tax payers. They will pay on and on. Look at the AATA. It makes no money and can only exist because the tax payer, you and me, continue to throw money at it. U o M's bus system works and pays for itself because they have the student population riding it. Look at Detroit. It costs over $100 per passenger to keep the system operational. It will never make enough money just to maintain the system let alone to expand it. How about electric buses if you insist? With overhead wires the buses could go wherever the wires are. Detroit had that system decades ago. It worked very well. It did not pay for itself either. Why should I be forced to throw money at things that don't work and never will? We are far too spread out to have an effecient affective system.


Sun, Mar 7, 2010 : 7:54 p.m.

I want to see the "TROLLY" or SKY TRAM pull up to Bursley Hall around 745am and load up the 300+ students that are trying to get to class by 800am!


Sun, Mar 7, 2010 : 5:23 p.m.

Trolleys and trams are just another variation on the "if we build it, they will come" school of development thought. Another overpriced solution for a relatively simple problem. Just add a few more buses going to Pfizer and be done with it! The Northwood bus already has a couple of stops right next to Pfizer, anyway. These fixed-route systems are just multi-million dollar solutions to hundred dollar problems. The last thing we need is an unholy alliance between the UM and our crack, Mr. Magoo-like local real estate developers, who are usually wanting to develop at the top, and go bankupt at the bottom. Ann Arbor is forever chasing pie-in-the-sky, it seems.


Sun, Mar 7, 2010 : 4:50 p.m.

I see an arial tram being better than a trolly or even a bus system in that it would avoid congestion entirely. The worry is that it would become like Detroit's People Mover... badly planned and thus pretty useless (though A2 isn't Detroit of course.) And Craig, no way in heck UofM is paying for those bridges. It isn't like they're the only way to get to the Stadium, they're not even the main way to get there. In fact from the U's standpoint traffic control would be EASIER of that bridge was closed down (no need to worry about cars turning left from Kipke Dr. onto Stadium at the end of the game, they'd obviously have to turn right only!) It would greatly hamper the city's bus routes, emergency routes, etc., not the U's. So go ahead and close it for all the U cares! /This coming from a U employee whose most direct route to work is over that bridge... they certainly don't care if my commute is slightly longer vs. spending millions of dollars they don't have to!


Sun, Mar 7, 2010 : 4:13 p.m.

njgreg, there's nothing futuristic about these grandiose over-the-top ridiculously expensive unnecessary projects. I don't think the Internet is really a good analogy here; this is more like putting 19 supercomputers in everyone's dorm rooom because we assume eventually that's what the internet will need. This is just a massively wasteful excuse to get rid of too much money so they can continue to say they need it. This is just another people mover; millions of dollars for no reason.


Sun, Mar 7, 2010 : 2:27 p.m.

I'm not sure whether Ann Arbor needs to go w/ a trolley or tram instead of expanding bus routes, but one reason to go with a "fixed" route system is to change land use patterns. Private investment won't follow bus routes, but is the route/stations aren't going anywhere like a train or trolley...


Sun, Mar 7, 2010 : 1:34 p.m.

When you charge ridiculous amounts for tuition I guess you can do what you want! Must be nice...


Sun, Mar 7, 2010 : 1:22 p.m.

Thank god for Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan. This great school continues (despite the odds) to insure that this wonderful state remains on the cutting edge of research, technology and innovation. There will always be critics who sit in comfort, posting on the Internet why the status quo is adequate. These individuals would have been the same types (had they been aware of research to establish the Internet) who would have said that telephones, TV, Radio, typewriters, and good old paper and pencil were sufficient means for communication and information dissemination. I commend the University of Michigan, and whole-heartedly endorse this effort. Keep pushing Michigan into the future.

Craig Lounsbury

Sun, Mar 7, 2010 : 8:49 a.m.

@mw the problem with your "logic" is it renders the transportation "experts" at the U useless. When quasi Government employees hold a "forum" it generally means they have rejected the cost efficient logical solution. They are seeking something much more grandiose to justify their paychecks.


Sun, Mar 7, 2010 : 8:28 a.m.

I still don't understand why this can't be accomplished with a bus system at a fraction of the cost? Buying land, installing mortar and bricks, ties up too much money and removes future flexibility for routing and technical improvements Exactly! In fact it's already being accomplished with UM's bus system that runs between the central, medical, and north campuses. If you put in a street-level trolley, you spend a small fortune putting in an inflexible system where routes can't be changed and trolleys can't even go around stalled cars or accidents on the tracks in the street. If you put in an 'aerial trolley' you're not talking about something like Portland's 'aerial tram', you talking about something like Chicago's 'L' tracks. That would be a large fortune rather than a small one and be even less flexible in terms of routing. If we're going to do anything, it should be express buses that can use a combination of regular streets, dedicated bus lanes or even bus-only connectors to avoid traffic congestion. Think 'bus rapid transit' ( -- not pie-in-the-sky aerial tramways.

Craig Lounsbury

Sun, Mar 7, 2010 : 8:13 a.m.

@a2grateful, I have to say using "NIMBY" and eminent domain in the same thought process makes me nervous.

The Picker

Sun, Mar 7, 2010 : 8:11 a.m.

I still don't understand why this can't be accomplished with a bus system at a fraction of the cost? Buying land, installing mortor and bricks, ties up too much money and removes future flexibility for routing and techinical improvements. Ann Arbor is not LA or Chicago the need for such a grand public project is questionable for a city of this size.

Craig Lounsbury

Sun, Mar 7, 2010 : 7:51 a.m.

"The University of Michigan realized it had to invest heavily in Ann Arbors transportation infrastructure" I have a swell idea. Start with that bridge a block and a half from your football Stadium.


Sun, Mar 7, 2010 : 7 a.m.

Now may be a logical time for something like this to happen. Mass transit connectors work with mass utilization. UM Ann Arbor certainly has mass utilization potential. They can only expand their bus service so far... At the same time, property acquisition prices are favorable for buyers. It's a good time to assemble land or purchase easements. Eminent domain could also be employed in this endeavor. NIMBY a2 has potential to throw its normal giant tantrum. It will be interesting to watch the NIMBY mass and the transit mass collide.