Proposed transit center hits another roadblock

Birmingham at a standstill following rejected counter-offer for land

By: Terry Oparka, Erin McClary | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published April 27, 2011


BIRMINGHAM/TROY — Birmingham’s stake in a proposed transit center at Maple and Coolidge may end with a second rejected counter-proposal for a piece of land on the city’s side of the project site.

However, Troy plans to move forward with plans.

“We’re moving forward with or without Birmingham,” said Mark Miller, acting assistant city manager/economic development services.

The project, virtually in its entirety, would be funded with federal and state dollars.

Troy City Manager John Szerlag said there is no stipend in the city budget to fund the project; though Troy earmarked $1.3 million for the project two years ago, that money has since been used for other capital improvements.

At an April 11 Birmingham City Commission meeting, an $850,000 counter offer from Edgemere Enterprises, which owns the piece of land Birmingham was looking to buy for the project, was rejected.

Birmingham Planning Director Jana Ecker, who’s been working on the transit center project with Troy for the past several years, said the land is needed for the city to be a part of the project, and it was to be purchased with federal dollars that only support its appraised value, which is under $400,000.

She said the issue is now at a standstill.

“(The counter) was more than twice the appraised value of the land,” she said. “If we can’t get the property on our side, then we can’t go through with the deal.”

Last summer, the city of Birmingham offered to purchase the same parcel of land, which abuts the railroad tracks immediately to the east of the end of Holland Street, for $397,162. Edgemere Enterprises countered that offer with $925,000, which the city flatly rejected for the same reason it rejected the most recent offer: The federal funding awarded for the transit center project leaves the city constrained by federal acquisition guidelines to purchasing the property at fair market value as determined through the appraisal process.

Following the city’s July 26, 2010, rejection of the $925,000 offer, Ecker said, “the counter-offer received from (Edgemere Enterprises) and rejected by the City Commission did not provide any explanation nor documentation to justify the exorbitant amount requested for the parcel, which does not have road frontage, nor any existing buildings or improvements on the site.”

She said her sentiments are the same in regards to Edgemere Enterprises’ recent counter of $850,000.

The piece of property is vacant and can only be accessed from a 12-foot easement across a towing yard. Ecker said the owners might be lucky to get the proposed $400,000 for it. The only thing on the land currently is a bunch of debris, she said.

The transit center — which will be on a 3.5-acre site at Maple and Coolidge in Troy, on the former site of the Ford Motor Tractor Plant — was initially expected to cost approximately $7 million, not including land acquisition.

The initial plans for the center included a 10-foot-high, 14-foot-wide tunnel connecting a 2,500-square-foot facility at Maple and Coolidge to the loading platform on the Amtrak rail in Birmingham. The Troy facility would serve as a waiting area for train, bus and taxi passengers.

The center was envisioned to serve as a hub for regional public transportation.

Troy acquired the property for the transit center from Grand Sakwa, developer of the 77-acre mixed-use commercial and residential Midtown Development at Maple and Coolidge, in a consent judgment. The agreement stated that if the property were not used for a transportation center, it would revert back to the developer, and required that the city fund the center within 10 years from the date of the judgment. This past summer, Grand Sakwa filed a lawsuit stating that the transit center has not been constructed, was not fully funded by the judgment date and the property now reverts back to them. The city contends that the project has been fully funded, and there is a hearing scheduled on the matter for May 25.

Ecker said the city had discussed options with the owner of the property, John Erb, and even offered to name the tunnel or center after him in exchange for a more acceptable offer.

John Erb is part of the Erb Family Foundation, which supports eco-friendly initiatives, according to the foundation’s website.

Ecker pointed out that public transportation is an eco-friendly alternative for the area’s commuters.

Erb did not return calls seeking comment about the counter offers.

Ecker said the city has discussed trying to gain some lenience from the federal government with regard to funding for Erb’s piece of property. She said the funding may be able to support a little more, perhaps in the wheelhouse of an additional $20,000, but even that would be difficult to secure.

“Maybe we can meet at some middle ground where we’re both unhappy,” she said, “but we can’t double the price.”

The city of Birmingham already purchased two small pieces of property adjacent to the Birmingham Public Schools’ bus garage facility at 2205 Holland. That sale was completed last April. The property would be used to access the transit center on the Birmingham side and provide approximately 35 parking spaces if the deal goes through.

Miller said that Birmingham could have gone through condemnation proceedings to secure the property owned by Erb. “That is clearly an option,” he said.

Birmingham City Manager Robert Bruner said condemnation would not solve the city’s setback with regard to the cost of the Edgemere Enterprises property.

“With all due respect to Mr. Miller, the decision to take private property for a public purpose by exercising the city’s power of eminent domain can only be made by the City Commission. The Birmingham City Commission is not interested in exercising that power,” he said. “Doing so would cost a considerable amount of both time and money. In the end, the city probably would not save any money.”

Miller said that Troy would work with the Federal Rail Administration to look at acceptable options, which could include a bridge or track switching, but cautioned these options are in discussion stages only.

“There are options to solve this,” Miller said.

Staff Writer Mary Beth Almond contributed to this report.