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Ypsilanti city council approves purchase agreement for International Village project at Water Street

Following six hours of public comment and deliberation among officials, Ypsilanti City Council voted Tuesday night to enter into a purchase agreement on the proposed International Village project for the city's troubled Water Street property.

 

Mayor Amanda Edmonds, mayor pro-tem Nicole Brown, and council members Beth Bashert and Dan Vogt voted yes; council member Lois Richardson voted no; and council members Pete Murdock and Brian Robb abstained from the vote.

 

Before the vote, council members shared numerous questions and concerns relating to the project, many of which could not be resolved at the meeting. Because of this, Richardson urged her fellow council members to support her motion to delay or postpone the vote on the purchase agreement until the beginning of October. The motion failed to pass, with only Murdock and Richardson voting in favor.

 

Tuesday's city council meeting took place at the Ypsilanti Freighthouse, 100 Market Place, instead of at City Hall, 1 S. Huron St., due to the number of residents who were expected to attend. More than 100 residents were present for the meeting. Less than half of them stuck around until the final vote was cast shortly before 1 a.m.

 

About 40 residents took to the podium to share their opinions on the project. The majority of those residents expressed concerns about the International Village. Many of them were against using the federal EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program, which provides a pathway to U.S. citizenship to foreign investors who contribute at least $500,000, as a funding mechanism for the project.

 

Chinese-American developer Amy Xue Foster, president of Troy-based International Village Advisory, LLC, was present at the meeting, but she didn't lead the presentation on the project. Instead, project manager Wayne Hofmann of Spence Brothers presented most of the information shared by the development team at the meeting.

 

The proposed International Village would be a mixed-use residential and commercial development with an emphasis on housing Chinese international students. The development would include 1,100 units spread amongst various apartment complexes, as well as a hotel. Hofmann said the units will be between 800 and 1,600 square feet and will rent at a rate of $1.40 to $2.10 per square foot, for a minimum rent of $1,120 per month.

 

The minimum total project cost is $325 million and the EB-5 program is expected to fund 40 percent of the project's cost. The target for investment through the EB-5 program is $130 million from 260 foreign investors, who would be required to create at least 2,600 jobs.

 

The vote provides the latest potential resolution to the city's lengthy struggle to develop the costly property and follows a more recent debate about including affordable housing in the development. On Monday night, more than 100 residents attended a special meeting to solicit public input on the International Village as it pertains to the issue of affordable housing. During the two-hour public comment period, there were 44 three-minute arguments from residents, some of whom spoke twice. A handful of residents voiced support for the International Village project, but the majority spoke against it.

 

Since the purchase agreement was approved, the city and the developer are expected to begin negotiations on a development agreement, with the goal of approving it by the end of the year. That process is expected to stoke further debate over what proportion of workers hired for the project must be Ypsi residents.

 

On Thursday, Edmonds, Brown, economic development director Beth Ernat, and police chief Tony DeGiusti will travel to China in an effort to build international relationships and promote Ypsi abroad.


Brianna Kelly is the embedded reporter for On the Ground Ypsi and an Ypsilanti resident. She has worked for The Associated Press and has freelanced for The Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business.

Photos by Brianna Kelly.

Special meeting on Ypsi's International Village proposal, affordable housing draws over 100

A large crowd of concerned citizens showed up for a special Ypsilanti City Council meeting during which residents were invited to weigh in on the proposed International Village project for the city's troubled Water Street property as it pertains to the issue of affordable housing.

 

More than 100 residents packed into the Ypsilanti Freighthouse, 100 Market Place, in Depot Town on Monday night. The meeting was changed from its originally scheduled location at City Hall, 1 S. Huron St., due to the number of residents who were expected to attend.

 

The special meeting was scheduled after the city's Human Relations Commission on Aug. 28 passed a recommendation for City Council to hold a public meeting on the International Village proposal and affordable housing. City Council narrowly passed the resolution on Sept. 5. Affordability advocacy group Defend Affordable Ypsi launched a concerted effort to encourage residents to attend both the Sept. 5 and Sept. 18 meetings.


A Troy-based development company named International Village Advisory, LLC, headed by Chinese-American developer Amy Xue Foster, has proposed a mixed-use residential and commercial development with an emphasis on housing Chinese international students on Water Street. The developers plan to spend at least $250 million on the project and to attract foreign investors who can obtain a visa through the EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program if they contribute at least $500,000 toward the project.

 

At the beginning of the meeting on Monday night, three members of the Human Rights Commission gave a presentation on why it was imperative to hold a public input meeting on the International Village project before City Council makes a decision. Commissioner Amber Fellows, a key organizer for Defend Affordable Ypsi, rattled off numerous statistics painting a picture of the city's housing-insecure residents.

 

"Until the city and county choose to center low-income renters and longtime residents who are vulnerable to displacement, then officials cannot say that they are concerned about affordability in any meaningful sense," Fellows said. "We are Ypsilanti. We can do better than this, much better."

 

Public input lasted two hours and featured 44 three-minute arguments from residents, some of whom spoke twice. A handful of residents voiced support for the International Village project, but the majority spoke against it.

 

Most residents who didn't support the project pleaded with council to hold off on making a decision. They argued that the International Village is a controversial project and the public hasn't been given the opportunity to share input on a decision that will affect the whole city.

 

"We need to be talking and brainstorming about how we can get all of our needs met when we're up against such a beast," Jeff Yoder said. "This means that the most vulnerable in our communities need to be absolutely at the center of all economic discussions. They're the ones who are the true measure of our economy's health."

 

A few well-traveled residents argued that Chinese developers have caused serious problems in other countries, like Namibia and Jamaica, where land is being bought up by rich foreigners. Several other residents argued that the city plans to cater to wealthy Chinese elites at the same time when longtime Latino residents are actively being targeted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

 

"I have to say the idea of there being an International Village doesn't seem like the worst thing ever at first blush, but the idea that we in Ypsilanti would be complicit in the selling of citizenship to the highest bidder when some of our poorest neighbors are being deported is pretty appalling," Liz MacGregor said.

 

Many of the residents who expressed support for the International Village project argued that it doesn't follow the pattern of gentrification because no one currently lives on the Water Street property, so no one will be displaced.

 

"Years ago, in another lifetime in New York City, I was a tenant organizer and I fought gentrification," said Eastern Michigan University history professor Mark Higbee. "Now, when you gentrify, that means pushing people out. If it's an empty 30-acre lot that the city of Ypsilanti – stupidly, in my opinion – spent millions of dollars on and we won't have paid off until 10 years from now, then it's not really gentrification if somebody builds new housing there because no one else has been moved out."

 

Some residents added that they're suspicious of city officials' plans on Thursday to travel to China to build international relationships and to promote Ypsi abroad. The trip will be funded by the Wayne State Chinese Students and Scholars Association.

 

City Council members declined to make comments at the meeting on Monday night. They're expected to speak and vote on a purchase agreement for the International Village project at another meeting tonight at 7 p.m. at the Ypsilanti Freighthouse.


Brianna Kelly is the embedded reporter for On the Ground Ypsi and an Ypsilanti resident. She has worked for The Associated Press and has freelanced for The Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business.

Photos by Brianna Kelly.

With firehouse solar installation, Ypsi continues rise as national solar power leader

Ypsilanti has become a solar leader in the last decade, going from no solar energy production to one megawatt and rising.

 

The most recent project that put the city over the one-megawatt mark was a 50-kilowatt solar installation on the roof of Ypsi's fire station, completed in April with a mix of volunteer and professional labor and a combination of city and private funds.

 

With the new installation, Ypsi now narrowly beats out San Francisco for the 17th highest solar production per capita nationwide, according to statistics compiled by Environment America. Ypsi has the highest solar production per capita in Michigan by far.

 

Independent power producer Chart House Energy worked with advocacy group SolarYpsi on the firehouse project, taking unique advantage of tax credits in the process. Nonprofits and municipalities don't pay taxes and therefore can't take advantage of tax credits, so Chart House Energy owns the equipment and will lease it to the city for six years. At that time, the city will buy the equipment from Chart House at fair market value.

 

Chart House president Rob Rafson says there will continue to be a disparity between Ypsi and Ann Arbor in terms of solar power production even though Ann Arbor is a bigger city with a "green" reputation. That's due to the fact that some municipalities (like Ypsi) consider solar installations industrial property and don't tax them, while others (like Ann Arbor) consider them personal property and tax installations at a high rate.

 

"There is legislation being written, and they're looking for a sponsor, to correct that inconsistency in the application of personal property tax rules," Rafson says.

 

In the shorter term, the city of Ypsi expects to make back the $31,000 it invested in the fire station project, because the solar installation is expected to provide about 70 percent of the energy the station needs.

 

As the federal government is pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement and scaling down the Environmental Protection Agency, Rafson says projects like the Ypsi fire station and conversations about renewable energy are more important than ever.

 

"Some studies show that government and utility installations will help us achieve about half of what we need (to mitigate global climate change), but the rest of us need to do the rest of the work," Rafson says. "In addition to these kinds of installations, we need to put in LED lights, turn off switches, and develop more energy-efficient habits, because if we don't, devastating things will be happening in the world."

 

In other sustainable energy news for Ypsi, Eastern Michigan University recently announced the installation of a 55-ton turbine in its heating plant, allowing the university to be nearly 100 percent self-sufficient in producing heat and power.

 

A more detailed account of the fire station installation can be found here. A YouTube video shows the installation in progress.

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.


Photos courtesy of SolarYpsi.

Blake Transit Center receives LEED Gold certification

The Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority's (AAATA) Blake Transit Center in downtown Ann Arbor is now LEED Gold certified by the United States Green Building Council (USGBC).

 

The popular third-party designation is given to buildings that meet criteria, as judged by a review committee, for conserving water and energy, as well as reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

 

Opened in March 2014, the 12,000-square-foot, $8 million center features locally sourced build materials, as well as energy-saving lighting, heating and cooling, water, and snow-removal systems.

 

AAATA maintenance manager and Blake Transit Center project manager Terry Black says the construction and recent certification represents a tremendous group effort by AAATA, its project partners, and the community.

 

"TheRide is committed to helping achieve a more resource-efficient, just, and ecologically sustainable community," Black says. "We are conscious that, as our footprint in the community grows, we must also strive to grow sustainably."

 

Much of the center uses LED light fixtures, with light sensors controlling exterior lighting and motion sensors for office spaces that reduce electricity usage. The center's water system includes rainwater collection for nonpotable uses, including flushing toilets. The site also features a heated driveway and sidewalk to melt snow and reduce road salt discharged into the stormwater system.

 

Sustainability efforts extended beyond constructing the new building to getting rid of the old one. Black says metal and wood from the previous transit center were salvaged and reused when possible, and concrete was crushed into stone for future use.

 

"We established a proper procedure to ensure that all the materials from the old transit building were sent to a recycling facility, where they were sorted and separated to be repurposed accordingly," Black says. "These steps ensured that all the materials did not end up in a landfill, but rather, were reused as much as possible."
Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.
Photo courtesy of AAATA.


Designs released, WEOC contribution announced for EMU Strong Hall renovation

A contribution from the Washtenaw Educational Options Consortium's (WEOC) Early College Alliance (ECA) program has brought Eastern Michigan University (EMU) one step closer to a summer renovation of its science complex.

 

Superintendents from all nine school districts in Washtenaw County were on hand for an April 19 ceremony that included EMU receiving a $200,000 check from WEOC, as well as the release of conceptual sketches of renovations to Strong Hall.

 

The renovation project is projected to cost $39.5 million, with about 75 percent of that funding coming from the State of Michigan's capital funding plan and 25 percent from EMU. The $200,000 from WEOC will offset the university's share of funding for the project, which aims to renovate the entire 80,713-square-foot building.

 

Strong Hall houses about 25 percent of the university's science classrooms, including a weather simulation lab and several physics labs as well as the departments of astronomy and physics and geology and geography.

 

The university plans to close the building and begin renovations this summer, including modernizing classrooms, labs, lecture rooms, and common areas, as well as infrastructure upgrades to the structural and electrical systems.

 

"It's not just bathrooms and water fountains. Most of the money and the focus of the renovation is on lab space, with a very instructional intent," says Dave Dugger, executive director of WEOC.

 

Dugger says WEOC's board and staff collectively decided to recognize EMU's commitment to WEOC's ECA program by giving back to the university. The ECA program allows students in Washtenaw County high schools to earn up to 60 college credits at EMU at no cost to students or their parents.

 

"That's a heck of a deal in today's world, with rising tuition," Dugger says.

 

The ECA program is funded through a portion of each school district's foundation allowance. About 430 students are currently participating in the ECA program, and enrollment is open for next year.

 

Dugger says Eastern has been an "extraordinarily willing" partner in the ECA program, but it isn't participating entirely out of altruism.

 

"We find about 30 to 40 percent will go on to other universities, but still around 65 percent on average remain at EMU," Dugger says. "It's a feeder mechanism for Eastern, and really, it's a win-win-win situation."
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.
Dave Dugger photo courtesy of Dave Dugger.


Take a look inside the Lodi Township home seeking an ultra-rare green building certification

Washtenaw County residents will have a chance to mark Earth Day with a tour of a local green home that aims to be only the second private residence in the world to earn the stringent Living Building Challenge (LBC) certification.

 

Ann Arbor firm Architectural Resource, along with homeowners Tom and Marti Burbeck, are inviting the public to tour the Lodi Township home, called Burh Becc at Beacon Springs. The home was built to earn the LBC sustainability certification, which was developed by the International Living Future Institute.

 

"LBC certification is currently the most rigorous green certification program on the planet," says Michael Klement, the home's architect.

 

The LBC certification goes beyond the commonly used Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification by requiring net zero energy, net zero water, and net zero waste, among other stipulations. It also requires homeowners and builders to think about sustainability in new ways.

 

"When you see house plans where the same house is being built in Baton Rouge, La., and Spokane, Wash., something is out of sorts with that," Klement says. To be a "living building," a residence must be in harmony with its surroundings, he says.

 

What the LBC guidelines don’t do is tell architects exactly how to accomplish these goals.

 

"They explain what good building looks like and then ask you to figure out how to achieve that," Klement says.

 

In the case of the Burbecks' home, moving from philosophy into practice entailed creating a highly energy-efficient "building envelope" that uses roughly 80 percent less energy than the typical home, using recycled wood floors from a local school to create a ceiling treatment, and using the roof to catch and filter water, which is then stored in three 2,500-gallon buried tanks.

 

Another difference with the LBC certification is that it is not awarded on projected performance but on actual performance. The Burbecks applied for certification in December 2016 and their home is currently five months into a 12-month probationary period. If the home achieves LBC standards, it will be awarded LBC certification this December.

 

More information about Burh Becc at Beacon Springs and the LBC certification process is available here. Tours of the home will take place from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. April 22. Tours are free but visitors must pre-register here.

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All images courtesy of the Burbeck family.


Take a look inside Ypsi's newly opened Landline Creative Labs

Ypsilanti's new home base for creative professionals is now open for business. After passing its final inspections last week, Landline Creative Labs opened its doors at 209 S. Pearl St. to tenants, who started moving in on Monday.

 

Founders Mark Maynard and Jesse Kranyak spent 10 months converting the second floor of the onetime Michigan Bell Telephone Co. building into affordable office spaces for locals working in film, photography, design, illustration, and communications.

 

"I think we did pretty good for first-time developers," Maynard says. "It took a bit longer than we would have liked, but, when all was said and done, we came in pretty close to finishing within our budget and with commitments for nine out of 10 of our offices."

 

Among those commitments are 7 Cylinders Studio, Chris Stranad Photography, Invisible Engines, InMotion Studios, the Thriving Nonprofit, Desktop Dog Training and Development, and Silver Thumb Photography.

 

Maynard and Kranyak conceived the project more than five years ago before finally settling on a location and buying the building last year. Maynard says financial support in the form of grants from Ann Arbor SPARK and the Ypsi Downtown Development Authority, as well as an Obsolete Property Rehabilitation Act designation from the city, helped not only fund the $443,000 project but also validate the effort.

 

In addition to the one Landline vacancy, there's a sizeable undeveloped space on the building's first floor, which also still houses Frank D's barbershop and a motorcycle repair shop. The partners would like to see a restaurant open there and are talking with potential tenants now.

 

Maynard says the hardest part of the Landline project so far has been turning people away.

 

"Some really good people came forward and expressed interest, and we would have loved to have had them join us at Landline, but they just didn't fit," he says. "It's not just about filling offices. It's about building a community of entrepreneurs who are working in related sectors that can learn from one another and really grow an industry here in Ypsilanti."

 

The second hardest part may have been finding a couch for the lobby. Maynard says after all the framing, drywalling, ventilation, electrical, flooring, and painting, the only missing piece was that elusive, perfect sofa.

 

"We just had this empty lobby, and we struggled with it for a long time, driving around Michigan in a truck, looking at couches we'd found on Craigslist," he says. "Eventually, though, we just walked up the block to Salt City Antiques and talked with Carol, who had the perfect sofa just waiting for us. It's this lovely '60s piece from Denmark, and it just brought everything together. And it was kind of awesome that what we were looking for was right here in Ypsi all along."
Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.


All photos by Doug Coombe.


New hike-bike path to connect Matthaei botanical gardens to B2B trail

A new paved hike-bike trail will link the University of Michigan (U-M) Matthaei Botanical Gardens with other nearby trails and provide a safer alternative to biking on the shoulder of Dixboro Road.

The two-mile trail will start inside the botanical gardens complex, cross the Radrick Golf Course, and run parallel to Dixboro Road, connecting to the Washtenaw County Border-to-Border Trail at Parker Mill Park.

Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation, the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, and the Michigan Department of Transportation provided more than $2.5 million in grants for the trail construction. Individuals and businesses also contributed nearly $800,000 toward the trail.

The new trail is expected to be used by U-M employees as well as by employees of nearby NSF International and the Toyota Motor North America Research and Development complex. Both companies made corporate donations toward the project.

Karen Sikkenga, associate director of Matthaei-Nichols, says her interest in pursuing the trail project came from her personal experience of bicycling to work at Matthaei.

"I'd ride my bike to work every summer, and I loved the river trail, but as soon as I got to Dixboro, it was harrowing along the last two miles of my route," Sikkenga says.

When Dixboro was resurfaced a few years ago, Sikkenga started cutting through Radrick Golf Course and thought it was much more pleasant than riding with traffic on Dixboro. She talked to Radrick staff and found they also supported the idea in theory, though they didn't want the trail to run through the golf course driveway and put cyclists in the path of oncoming car traffic.

Not too long after that, a student intern got hit by a car while riding his bike into work at the botanical gardens.

"He was doing everything right, wearing bright clothing and complying with traffic laws and signaling with his hands. The driver who hit him also felt awful. She just didn't see him," Sikkenga says. "It really reinforced for me that it was an important project."

Sikkenga says others have tried to initiate a similar project in the past, before her time at Matthaei, but the parties involved couldn't come to an agreement on funding, the exact route for the trail, and other details.

Surveys and research from those earlier efforts indicated a community interest in the trail, and NSF and Toyota have both supported the new trail project as part of a focus on wellness programs for employees, Sikkenga says.

This time around, Ann Arbor Township was the local government entity serving as the applicant for grants geared toward non-motorized transportation projects.

"They've had something like this project in their recreation plan for a long time, and they gave us their full support in this partnership," Sikkenga says.

Construction crews have already started clearing brush along the trail, and Sikkenga says the goal is to have the new project completed by autumn. In a few months, she expects to announce the grand opening date for the trail.

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

Ark renovation project wins award from Washtenaw Contractors Association

A remodeling project at the Ark in Ann Arbor has won one of the Washtenaw Contractors Association's (WCA) six annual awards for excellence in commercial construction projects.

The Ark project was awarded "Best Project Team" for projects under $3 million during the March 10 ceremony for the WCA's PYRAMID Awards. The awards honor local contractors, architects, and owners for projects that show high levels of teamwork, service, and innovation. Judges picked the Ark project in part because it required a tight timeline and a high level of coordination between all parties.

The architect for the project was Mitchell and Mouat Architects of Ann Arbor, and the contractor was Phoenix Contractors of Ypsilanti.

Laborers from 15 different trades worked in a 1,200-square-foot space to give the legendary folk music venue a new concession and bar area, updated lighting, new food and beverage service areas, and upgraded finishes throughout the space in just four weeks over the winter holidays.

In order to ensure an impartial vote, the competition was judged by a panel of architects, owners, and contractors from outside Michigan. Graham Davidson, a partner with Hartman-Cox Architects in Washington, D.C., served on the panel and says the timeline and coordination of the project really stood out.

"What really cinched it was the incredibly tight timeframe, and yet there was the need to keep the venue operational for at least part of that time," Davidson says.

Davidson says that, ideally, all projects should be well-organized but that pre-planning doesn't always happen. The only way to make the four-week project work and keep the Ark operational for two of those weeks was for the contractor to be smart about organizing the contracting team, Davidson says.

"It was obvious there was intensive involvement with the owner and architect ahead of time, and the goals were well understood," Davidson says. "The pre-planning for this clearly took an enormous effort."

In addition to the Ark project, the "Best Subcontractor" award for contracts over $500,000 went to John E. Green Co. of Highland Park for a chiller replacement and chilled water interconnect for the University of Michigan's Medical Science Research Building II. The project involved replacing three absorption chillers and pumps with new centrifugal units and pumps and replacing four cooling towers.

Davidson says the panel was impressed with the level of planning and the extraordinary circumstances the subcontractors had to work under, which included making sure critical medical research wasn't damaged due to temperature or environmental fluctuations during the work.

"The facility not only had to be kept operational for research, but conditions had to be maintained pretty strictly. That, to us, made it much more difficult and more impressive than it at first seemed to be," Davidson says.

A full list of winners is available at the WCA webpage, including several located outside Washtenaw County. WCA executive director Gretchen Walters says the reason many of the winning projects weren't located in Washtenaw County is that members of the association must merely do work in Washtenaw County and need not be headquartered in the county. Members could submit projects located anywhere in their service area.

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

Photos courtesy of Washtenaw Contractors Association.

Babo, Tiny Buddha Yoga expand brands from Ann Arbor into Ypsilanti

Ypsilanti's Depot Town will welcome two new Ann Arbor transplants next month, when specialty market Babo and Tiny Buddha Yoga move into the former Fantasy Attic costume store.

The new location is expected to open Friday, April 7 at 19 E. Cross St. Sava Lelcaj, owner of Babo as well as Sava's restaurant and other food businesses under the Savco Hospitality brand, says the Ypsi location will serve as a "sanctuary for locals and students seeking health and wellness." Customers can pick up "grab and go" health foods and cold-pressed juices or take a yoga class.

"Tiny Buddha Yoga will have a yoga studio and retail space for yoga gear and clothing, and we'll have a shared meditation space where all are welcome to come and relax and find balance," Lelcaj says.

Lelcaj is the business brains behind five food-related businesses that have so far all been located in Ann Arbor. She says that when Tiny Buddha Yoga owner Risa Gotlib found an ideal studio space in Depot Town, it opened up an opportunity for both businesses.

"It seemed the perfect opportunity for collaboration with this like-minded brand, to build something meaningful together in the heart of Ypsilanti," Lelcaj says.

The announcement of the move has drawn mixed reactions on social media and in the Metro Times, with some expressing concerns that the introduction of the two businesses in Ypsilanti is part of a trend toward gentrification.

Lelcaj isn't commenting on the naysayers. She says she's always evolving her business model and plans to adapt to the Ypsilanti market. She and her employees have been handing out free cold-pressed juices in Depot Town to build excitement for the opening of the businesses.

"This model will be very different from our former market model but will remain tried and true to our health food grab-and-go model," she says. "We are reaching out to the local community about their needs, but really we will learn how to cater to the community because we plan to become a part of the community."

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

Ann Arbor-to-Traverse rail feasibility study moves forward with funding

Now that funding for a feasibility study is in place, an Ann Arbor-to-Traverse City railroad line is one step closer to reality.

Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, an advocacy group based in Traverse City, is leading an initiative to bring back regular passenger train service between southeast and northwest Michigan, with a goal of having it operational by 2025. Groundwork partnered with the Bay Area Transit Authority to apply for federal funds that the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) distributes to regional transit authorities.

Concentrate reported on the feasibility study in August 2016, but funding for the study has only recently been firmed up. Because Groundwork is collaborating with many partners including MDOT and regional transit authorities, it took some time to have them all sign off on the study, according to Groundwork program director Jim Lively.

Lively says tracks are already in place for the entire route, so work would focus on upgrading and improving the tracks and amenities along the route.

Public input sessions will be held at the beginning and again at the end of the feasibility study. Communities along the route that will be surveyed include Petoskey, Traverse City, Cadillac, Mount Pleasant, Alma, Ann Arbor, and possibly Brighton. Lively says the Groundwork team is leaving room for surveying other communities along the southern portion of the route.  

Lively says the study will help all partners in the initiative learn what the demand is for this type of rail and analyze the demographics of potential passengers. They also need to decide how much to charge for tickets and what factors will influence how much passengers will be willing to spend, such as the speed of the trains and what the transportation experience as a whole will be like.

"Our ideal goal would be daily service from northeast to southeast Michigan, but it might take some time to get to that," Lively says.
 
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor based in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

Ypsilanti residents launch new millage campaign for Water Street debt retirement

Ypsilanti voters may again be asked to approve a 2.3-mill debt retirement millage to pay off the city's Water Street property debt, if organizers behind a new citizen-led effort can rally enough support for it this spring.

The city proposed a similar millage that was narrowly defeated last August. Now volunteers behind the recently launched Citizens for Ypsi campaign are working to get the measure back on the ballot this summer.

Citizens for Ypsi treasurer Adam Gainsley says the group wants to help stabilize Ypsilanti's finances, so the city can focus on basic services and economic growth.

"All the folks working on this campaign are invested in Ypsilanti and want to make sure our home continues to be an amazing place to live," Gainsley says. "Many of us have children that we are looking forward to raising here in Ypsi and want to make sure their future here is bright."

The millage would raise about $700,000 per year through 2031 to be put toward the city's outstanding principal of $7,840,000 still owed on the property. That money is currently withdrawn from the city's general fund, which has led to cuts in staffing, policing, programs, and services in Ypsi. The Water Street site has become a financial burden on the city as expected redevelopment interest in the property has repeatedly failed to materialize.

The group needs 848 signatures by April 13 to get the proposal on the Aug. 7 ballot. An informational kickoff event will be held from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 25, at the Ypsilanti Freighthouse.

In addition to Gainsley, who also serves on the Ypsilanti Downtown Development Authority's (DDA) board of directors, the group of community leaders and professionals includes John Weiss, Lisa Wozniak, Gillian Ream Gainsley, Kerri Pepperman, Elisa Guyton, Jelani Mcgadney, Dylan Goings, Jason Loren, Kate Stroud, and Jenn Wenzel. It also has the backing of Ypsilanti's city council, Washtenaw County Commissioner Ricky Jefferson, state Rep. Ronnie Peterson, and former state Rep. Alma Wheeler Smith.

Gainsley is optimistic about the millage passing this time because the 2016 defeat came down to less than 40 votes with minimal fundraising, organizing, and outreach.

"We're tapping into our community talent to build a highly informative campaign with outreach efforts across the city," he says. "We're putting together a number of informational pieces to clearly show the current state of the city's finances, as well the effects of the result of this vote on our financial future.

"This debt has been a thorn in our side long enough, and it is time to put it behind us and move onto more important work."

Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.

Café Ollie to relaunch and expand with fine dining and craft cocktails

The owners of Ypsilanti's Café Ollie have closed their popular Depot Town restaurant and ice cream spot to make way for two new ventures: a craft cocktail bar and fine-dining restaurant in the former café space, and a café and bakery coming to the storefront next door.

Mark Teachout, who opened the café six years ago with his wife Danielle, says the changes suit the Teachouts' "very broad concept" for the business.

"It just makes sense to separate and split into two separate entities, albeit side-by-side," he says.

Teachout says the new restaurant, simply called "Ollie," will help fill the gap for an "affordable, unpretentious fine-dining experience" in Ypsi.

"I see a real opening for a cozy place, where you can get great food and a stiff drink and actually hold a conversation," he says. "Boozy breakfast [and] brunch will also be our focus."

Classic cocktails will be a staple for Ollie, with an emphasis on Michigan-made spirits, but the restaurant will also continue serving Michigan beers and wines that will rotate seasonally.

Chef Travis Schuster (formerly of Spencer and Corner Brewery) is handling the food menu, which will also have a seasonal, local focus. Established favorites like mac and cheese aren't going anywhere, but Schuster also plans to bring in lots of fresh, local ingredients and special dinner and brunch surprises.

The café and bakery space next door, dubbed the Cream and Crumb, will offer the ice cream, coffee, and scones Café Ollie has been known for since opening. Zingerman's Bakehouse breads and sweets will also be available and Teachout plans to host live music in the space.

Café Ollie had been listed for sale about a year ago because of Teachout's degenerative arthritis, but he and his wife changed their minds about selling after his health improved last fall.

"The café was doing well, but we knew that in order to grow the business, I would have to be well also," he says. "Long story short: I got on some better meds, and we turned down the offers we had on the business, and here we are."

The owners hope to get the new businesses open by mid-March, and Teachout is optimistic about how people will respond.

"There is a perception that Ypsi is solely a 'shot and a beer' town — no wine, nothing challenging in a culinary sense — and that reflects how people in this industry invest," he says. "It takes a lot of money to open a place, and if you miscalculate you lose. So folks stick to tried and true. But I believe that Ypsi is a place where people have more diversity of thought, and I'm confident in our future."
 
Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.

USDOT designation puts Willow Run automated vehicle test grounds in national network

A recent designation as one of the first national proving grounds for automated vehicles should help Ypsilanti Township's American Center for Mobility (ACM) generate even more interest from potential clients and confidence from stakeholders.

The ACM was one of 10 facilities nationwide to be accepted into the United States Department of Transportation's (USDOT) Automated Vehicle Proving Grounds Pilot program last week. The facilities, selected from a pool of 60 applicants, will work to develop and share best practices in what USDOT refers to as a "community of practice."

Set to open by the end of this year, the over 300-acre ACM site is a testing grounds for connected and automated vehicles (CAV), being built on the former site of the Willow Run powertrain plant in Ypsilanti Township.

ACM chief operating officer John Maddox says the USDOT designation ensures that ACM "will always be at that cutting edge, that we'll have the latest, and that the facilities that we design here could very well become the national standard and even the international standard."

Maddox says the designation also speaks to the U.S. government's commitment to the country leading the way in CAV technology globally.

"There's a lot of work to do to validate these connected and automated technologies, and it's not a simple task necessarily," he says. "It's going to take a fair amount of collaboration, expertise, and a fair amount of innovation."

In addition to vehicles, the site is also being designed to test and develop related technologies, such as traffic control devices that communicate with each other and with cars, as well as the communication systems they will use. Maddox says the center's "purpose-built" approach and close proximity to auto industry leaders help set it apart from other facilities and make it possible to become a leader in the space.

"We expect to see continued and even expanding interest [from] companies that want to locate here and be close to this site, so their engineers, their technicians, even their lawyers and product managers, can utilize the site to really speed their product market," Maddox says.

Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.

Ann Arbor train station design work could forge ahead without site decision

The location for a long-discussed new Amtrak station in Ann Arbor may still not be determined by Tuesday, Jan. 17, but either way Ann Arbor City Council will review a resolution to approve $2.1 million for preliminary design and engineering work for the station.

Ann Arbor mayor Christopher Taylor says getting the design contract underway is necessary despite not having an approved site because of time constraints tied to grant funding from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).

The city has until September of this year to spend about $2 million left from a $2.8 million federal grant it accepted in 2012, or else it loses that money.

"We are continuing to work under an FRA grant in order to move the train station project forward for site assessment and preliminary engineering," Taylor says.

The FRA is also reviewing the site proposals, which include expanding the existing Depot Street station and building a new station on Fuller Road. Earlier this month, Taylor expressed frustrations over delays in getting a site approved by the FRA in a year-in-review letter shared by email and social media.

If architecture firm Neumann/Smith's proposal for design and engineering work is approved as part of council's consent agenda Tuesday, the firm could have to plan around more than one location for the preliminary designs.

"They'll take into account where we are on the site assessment and move forward with all options in mind," Taylor says. "The process has gone on for much longer than anybody is happy with, and this is one of the consequences of that."

Once a site is approved and preliminary designs are finished, Taylor says the city will work with the FRA on next steps for the station, which include securing local matching funds for the project.

Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.

Photos by Doug Coombe.
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