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Posted on Sat, Jan 19, 2013 : 3:02 p.m.

University missed an opportunity for collaboration with community on solar panel project

By Guest Column


Solar panels installed at the University of Michigan's North Campus Research Complex are the source of frustration among some nearby residents.

Joseph Tobianski |

The University of Michigan’s installation of hundreds of solar panels at the former Pfizer facility along Plymouth Road represents a missed opportunity for proactive collaboration between the University and its Ward 2 neighbors.

Instead, the installation, which took place without direct communication with Plymouth Road neighborhood leaders or Ward 2 City Council Members, has lead to resentment and anger toward the largest benefactor of economic stability in this city.

And these feelings are not new. When I began my campaign for a seat on Ann Arbor City Council last spring, I met with numerous city leaders and was troubled by the lack of positive regard toward the University. But why? The University of Michigan is this city's largest and most stable employer and as such has helped Ann Arbor bear the brunt of the latest economic downturn.

The resentment toward the university stems from the fact that it is not required to pay city property tax or heed city ordinances. There is a perception that the University does whatever it wants, whenever it wants, without regard to the surrounding community. This smacks of arrogance and does not sit well among city stakeholders.

But what if a fresh approach could wipe clean the slate of years of built-up tension? Building a more collaborative relationship with the university became a cornerstone of my campaign. I was encouraged when in September, Jim Kosteva, the university’s director of community relations asked to meet with me about some issues for which the University would need city input. I had met with Mr. Kosteva in the early days of my campaign and he was well aware of my desire to jump-start a new relationship with the university.

This meeting would have been an ideal opportunity to give the city a heads up about the pending project on Plymouth Road. In retrospect, I feel my efforts have been one step forward and now two steps back. So what does successful proactive collaboration look like?

In the case of the solar panels installation, the university could have enlisted the the Ward 2 City Council members; Jane Lumm and myself, to organize a neighborhood meeting during which the University of Michigan could present their plans and hear feedback from the neighboring community. The aesthetic aspects of the installation could easily have been resolved proactively in a manner that doesn’t delay the University’s plans. Residents know we have no legal recourse to prevent the University from going ahead with its plans, but giving us the courtesy of advance notice and the chance to voice any concerns goes a long way in demonstrating what it means to be a good neighbor.

How do we ensure these “missed opportunities” do not recur? It will take the commitment of city leaders as well as university regents to adopt a culture of proactive collaboration. While the city and the university do have a history of cooperation at the functional level; between the AAPS and DPS, and between our respective transportation and construction division, I sense that the tone of these communications typically is reactive and defensive, with both parties protecting their turf, so to speak.

In my mind, collaboration is distinctly different and on a higher strategic level than mere cooperation. In February, the city will host the annual city-university reception. With two new Regents, and three new City Council members, now is the time to elevate the dialogue from functional cooperation to a culture of strategic collaboration.

Sally Hart Petersen

City Council member, Ward 2.



Sun, Jan 27, 2013 : 12:39 a.m.

U of m is a business and should pay taxes. Amend the constitution. Its not like they can go anywhere

Retiree Newcomer

Tue, Jan 22, 2013 : 10:07 p.m.

Thank you, Councilor Petersen, for your thoughtful column. It's too bad there are so many commenters on youor column who are critical of your constuctive effort to begin a more meaningful dialogue between the City of Ann Arbor and its residents and UM. There seems to be a lot of cynicism here. If residents are not happy with the city council, then they need to get involved - attend meetings, speak out on substance, The same for those who seem to jsut throw up their hands because they believe UM is omnipotent. This column was an attempt at generating positive action. Councilor Petersen desverves our thanks.


Tue, Jan 22, 2013 : 2:32 p.m.

I believe Ms. Petersen has brought up an important issue here: the difficult relationship that has developed over time between town and gown. It shouldn't be this way, and as she states, it doesn't have to.

jill maio

Tue, Jan 22, 2013 : 6:42 a.m.

as a neighbor, the solar panels are more attractive than all the smokestacks and truck garages around the corner on Green Road and the strip mall on Plymouth Rd. iCongrats, U of M on the expansion of alternative energy in my neighborhood! a good use of this open property.


Mon, Jan 21, 2013 : 1:49 a.m.

nosuv, Do you have a source for your claim?

Unusual Suspect

Wed, Jan 23, 2013 : 1:41 a.m.

"dillusional and paranoid " Uh, don't look now, but......


Tue, Jan 22, 2013 : 12:54 a.m.

Lie? Refuse to debate? Debating with idiots (conservatives) is a waste of time. Conservatives start from ideology and look for facts to support their strange and often destructive view of the world. Only in America do we have high percentages denying evolution, global warming, and the dangers of assault weapons in the hands of dillusional and paranoid "black helicopter" freaks.


Mon, Jan 21, 2013 : 3:47 a.m.

Link to data? 1952 was far different than today. How about James Hansen who said, You sometimes need to exagerat to get your point accross, then was caught twice falsifying data. If your cause is correct, why lie and refuse to debate?


Mon, Jan 21, 2013 : 2:27 a.m.

BTW, lest you think my comments are mean spirited, it is quite logical. If you don't want renewable energy, you want dirty coal, and DTE is happy to sell you more dirty electricity because they make money off of coal. Pure greed. Coal kills, causes asthma in children, mercury in our food chain, not to mention ripping tops off of mountains, polluted streams, and green house gasses. And don't tell me global warming isn't real. There isn't a poster on this thread as knowledgeable or as intelligent as any of the 97% of climate scientists that so it is true. Not one. None.


Mon, Jan 21, 2013 : 2:19 a.m.

The non-profit Clean Air Task Force provided these numbers. It shouldn't be a shock. The London fog of 1952 killed 12,000 people. Hospitals were full of choking people. Same is true in U.S. cities until Nixon created the EPA. The same people who hate renewable energy also hate the EPA. Sadly, they also benefit from clean air. I really wish they could enjoy the Beijing Fog that they seem to like so much.


Mon, Jan 21, 2013 : 1:01 a.m.

If you don't like having solar panels on Plymouth Road, or just hate renewable energy like some on this thread, I suggest some inexpensive real estate near the River Rouge Power Plant. Every year the DTE plant is responsible for 44 deaths, 72 heart attacks, and 700 asthma attacks (many young children literally dying for a breath of clean air). You and your asthmatic children won't have to look at the unsightly solar panels.


Mon, Jan 21, 2013 : 1 p.m.

Just where did the commenter obtain such specific death figures (44, no cause specified) as well as 72 heart attacks and 700 asthma attacks? Does this include those electrocuted from hot jumping the DTE grid for free power? The results are truly shocking!


Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 9:30 p.m.

Yes, clean energy does require a substantial footprint, but so does dirty energy, which involves building dirty ugly power plants and taking apart the mountains of West Virginia. My preference goes to clean energy + conservation (using less energy).


Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 6:52 p.m.

Hello check-out the solar panel on Michigan ave.FORD wayne realy clean..


Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 4:15 p.m.

Is it really the case that the city wasn't informed? Is it really the case that the residents of Ward 2 are up in arms? Sally is new and listening to constituents is good. But, is it just the screech of the constant complainers or a real consensus? I thing this is a lot about nothing and I am a Ward 2 resident. So, Sally, start networking with the city employees who probably knew about this all along. You can do the PR to sell this to your constituents. But' don't expect the screechers not to screech, no matter what the issue. Just recognize that they may be a tiny but loud minority.


Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 4:55 p.m.

We have a winner right here! Best comment to this article yet. Pandering plain and simple!

Tom Woods

Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 3:52 p.m.

What resentment? People on the northeast side of Ann Arbor owe U of M huge thanks for making use of the mothballed campus. Thank you U of M!!!!

David Cahill

Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 3:18 p.m.

I appreciate Councilmember Petersen's efforts to engage the SNUM in collaboration - even despite the slap in the face of not notifying her of the Plymouth Road solar panel project in advance. But Petersen needs a "dance partner", in the words of US Senator Mitch McConnell. Plainly, Sovereign Nation Ambassador Jim Kosteva won't do. It is good that Petersen wants to go farther up the food chain.


Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 2:18 p.m.

The problem with green energy is the large footprint it requires. Both wind and solar require large amounts of land for only part time energy production. Hydro produces 24 hrs a day, but many do not like the change in river flow caused by the dams.

David Frye

Tue, Jan 22, 2013 : 12:17 a.m.

As opposed to dirty energy, which only requires stripmining entire mountains and valleys and leaving them ruined wastelands for thousands of years.

Liberty Soule

Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 1:40 p.m.

Sally, it kind of sounds like you we're a sleep at the wheel in not knowing this was going on, and now you want to blame the big bad U. How in world did you know about this project was happening. The University cares very little about relationships unless the is something they want. Just ask Blimpy burgers.


Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 2:56 a.m.

David Canter was site head of Parke-Davis/ Pfizer for years. He is currently head of the NCRC. He dealt with the local residents for years. He knew there would be push back from the surrounding community in trying to put up that eye sore. The U of M found it far easier to just do it without giving any notice. If you believe otherwise I have a bridge to sell you. The unfortunate thing is there is about a 2 acre parking lot in the back where they could have located it out of site from the main roads. Why they chose to rip up a field of Black-eyed Susans and trees instead of putting it in an empty parking lot out of everyone's site is the question that needs to be asked. The U of M can do whatever it wants, and will do whatever it wants. Members of the city goverment have a relationship with the UM so don't expect any help there.

Dog Guy

Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 1:41 a.m.

When U. of M. wants collaboration with Ann Arbor, it hires collaborators in situ.


Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 1:18 a.m.

We does the UM need the neighbors approval? This is why nothing can get done in the city do to the continue outreach for public opinion. The university is not city government. Which neighbors are complaining? Its an eyesore? To who? Which houses face NCRC? The ones that has a view of the Clouded Door Knob? And this is an eyesore? The UM simply get things done. No waiting for years of public input, design studies, hiring consultants, forming committees, plan reviews, e.t.c....this is the exact same reasons why the city lost out on ever purchasing the site or developing it. Just look at the houses on Main St. How long has this process been going on? What about the every other empty city lot? That former Clark gas station near the Treasure Mart is still there?!? Kudos to the UM! A much better ideal than wind turbines!

Stephen Landes

Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 1:12 a.m.

The angry commenters here are really disturbing. No one expects the University to "ask permission" to build this solar panel installation on their property. However, one of the goals of these installations is to increase public awareness of and acceptance of alternative energy generation technologies and methods. What better way to enhance this aspect of the project than to do just as Ms. Hart Peterson suggests: ask for the help of local council members to set up a informational/educational meeting so local residents can become informed on this project and its benefits? Why is it so hard for some of our commenters to grasp the idea that an educational institution actively educating its friends and neighbors is a useful and positive step?


Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 7:32 p.m.

Because everyone wants the UM to do this before they start the project. This implies that they are expecting input, which implies that we will then hear complaints that the UM ignored all the input the community gave. If all you want is UM (really DTE) to inform people of the benefits, that can just as easily be done after it is built. That may in fact be even a better time than before, as people can see the actual project and not just renderings. I sincerely believe that the sole net effect of having the UM do this before the project is done is that the complaining will start earlier.

Jon Wax

Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 12:30 a.m.

Once they put up a row of hedges it won't be much of an issue. I can remember back to when Nixon was dirt and the Kroger was an old farmhouse on the corner that had a vegetable stand on the weekends. For me the real problem is the UNHOLY waste of space in the pfizer building. Having seen the inside in it's current incarnation I can only say that there are so many possible uses for that building as to boggle the mind. The fact that the front lawn looks unpleasant at the moment pales in comparison to the fact that I'm pretty sure you could take every school in the area, relocate them ALL, private & public, k-12 to that building and you'd still have room left over. It really is an amazing waste of space. As long as the lawn gets mowed, can't really say I care what they do with the panels. They bought the property. You wanna change how it looks? Make 'em an offer. Peace Wax


Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 12:29 a.m.

The suggestion of a meeting prior to installation with the neighboring community and that it somehow or someway might have changed the universities plans is just silly. Slow down people and quit over-reacting. The project isn't even complete yet and people are running around screaming the sky is falling the sky is falling. This solar array will provide enough power for 100 homes. This is a good thing! It makes us less dependent on foreign energy. And seriously why is anyone complaining about the esthetic value of a solar array when a strip mall is there as well.


Sat, Jan 19, 2013 : 11:19 p.m.

Hope the residents of Ward 2 and others passing by enjoy the massive eyesore the U of M is constructing on Plymouth Rd. at the former Pfizer property. With all of Michigan's sunny days, these panels should really pump out the megawatts. While the U of M is at it here, the University should install recharging stations, for all of the nonexistent electric cars. Go Blue!


Sat, Jan 19, 2013 : 11:18 p.m.

Also: maybe the collaboration effort can address the uom billboard project which appears to be under way between the stadium & Crisler Arena... another example of community outreach and response to criticism,

Alan Benard

Sat, Jan 19, 2013 : 11:16 p.m.

Had the university opened discussions with the larger community, this very useful and necessary expansion of solar power in the city would never have been built.


Sat, Jan 19, 2013 : 10:35 p.m.

This is all speculative, and well written....but really, the U does not care, never has, and never will care about community relations. They do whatever they want on their property, and they are lucky they can do so. Frankly I wish I could do whatever I want on my property and not have to pay taxes either....on the other hand, this city would not be here, or it would look more like Chelsea if the university were not here -- so really, we should all quit our whining and enjoy what we have.


Sat, Jan 19, 2013 : 10:30 p.m.

City Council members can't even get along with each other. What makes you think that the U-M should reach out to you? Be proactive and set a leadership example, and maybe then you will be treated as such.


Sat, Jan 19, 2013 : 10:20 p.m.

All those panels are totally in conflict with the visual purity of the CVS, BP, and Carson signs. How dare the U of M violating the high standards of Plymouth Road. There goes the "Washtenaw County 5-lane Scenic Drive" designation.


Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 9:06 p.m.

ROFL ..... too funny.

Jon Saalberg

Sat, Jan 19, 2013 : 10:12 p.m.

I don't, for a second, think the array is uglier than the strip mall directly across the street.


Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 1:56 a.m.

Interesting point, very interesting. As for commercial development has there ever been public input on these strip malls. I cringe every time I look at west stadium, or the strip malls on Packard near platt.

Macabre Sunset

Sat, Jan 19, 2013 : 9:41 p.m.

When you say "collaboration", why don't say what you really mean, which is that you want to foist your personal tastes upon the University. Ann Arbor would be Jackson or Benton Harbor without the University of Michigan. Maybe the "arrogance" you and your friends are perceiving is more frustration with a lack of recognition for why Ann Arbor is a special place - that the University is a constant draw for bright individuals throughout the entire world.

Jon Wax

Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 12:31 a.m.

Ann Arbor would be Pittsfield. Pittsfield would be Ypsi. Ypsi would be Detroit. Peace Wax

Leslie Morris

Sat, Jan 19, 2013 : 9:40 p.m.

Thank you, Sally, for this very reasonable suggestion for University representatives to voluntarily meet with citizens on issues that concern us. The huge installation of solar panels on Plymouth Road with no public warning or discussion felt like a slap in the face to neighbors. Solar power is valuable and welcome, but the University could have avoided at least some of the anger it aroused if it had acted as you suggest. I wish you success in your attempts to improve City-University relations.


Sat, Jan 19, 2013 : 9:11 p.m.

This project was communicated a year in advance. More importantly, the U owns the property. It is not obligated to announce every change it makes to or on it's site. An expectation that it do so is ridiculous - there is no requirement for strategic collaboration or cooperation on such issues. It is not asking for a zoning change or variance, in which case collaboration or cooperation would be necessary. The City and it's useless City Council has enough on it's hands and should worry about cooperating with and collaborating with it's constituents on issues like the art fund, the crosswalks, the idling ordinance, police and fire budgeting, etc. etc.


Sun, Jan 20, 2013 : 12:52 p.m.

The People of the state of Michigan own the university. It is a public institution.


Sat, Jan 19, 2013 : 9:47 p.m.

She did suggest that this was a missed opportunity for the U to talk with residents in advance. So there is an expectation that the council believes the U should discuss their projects with the citizens of Ann Arbor. I agree with Sparty. The U will do what is wants, regardless of the citizens' opinions.

Steve Bean

Sat, Jan 19, 2013 : 9:40 p.m.

"It is not obligated to announce every change it makes to or on it's site. An expectation that it do so is ridiculous - there is no requirement for strategic collaboration or cooperation on such issues." Straw men. She suggested no such "obligation" or "requirement".