Troy Transit Center condemnation lawsuit thrown out

From The Detroit News:

Photo by Larry Sobczak
Photo by Larry Sobczak

Months after construction was completed on Troy’s new multimodal transit center, passengers hoping to catch a train at the $6.3 million facility are still out in the cold.

On a frigid morning last week, Troy dentist Keith Kelley stood at the outdoor train platform on the Birmingham side of the tracks, waiting to catch a ride to a conference in Chicago. He could look across and see the Troy transit center, but couldn’t go inside.

“I’d love to have it open right now. In fact, I was looking forward to having it open in November,” he said. “It’s unfortunate.”

The transit center was born in controversy and continues to be a headache for Troy years after the City Council approved federal funds to build it.

The center, which was completed last fall behind a shopping center near Maple and Coolidge Highway, remains closed to commuters because, according to a judge’s ruling, the city does not own the land upon which it was built.

In the meantime, commuters who rely on the Amtrak train must use a freestanding shelter on the other side of the train tracks in Birmingham, which provides little protection from the elements.

Riders on SMART bus lines 465 and 475 also have to wait in freestanding shelters along Maple Road, according to the suburban bus service.

“It’s a shame people have to stand outside in the cold when there is a perfectly good building across the tracks,” said Troy Mayor Dane Slater.

The city is committed to gaining control of the land, which the judge ruled belongs to developer Grand/Sakwa Properties, the owner of the Midtown Squareshopping center surrounding the transit center.

Although he never supported building the transit center, Mayor Pro Tem Dave Henderson says the city must get the land somehow, whether that is through an agreement with Grand/Sakwa or through condemning the property.

“I didn’t vote for it, but I’m 100 percent behind it now,” said Henderson. “From a community standpoint, we have to try to do whatever it takes to make it work, because otherwise we will have wasted a lot of money.”

Last month, Oakland County Circuit Judge Leo Bowman dismissed the city’s lawsuit against Grand/Sakwa, affirming the developer’s ownership of the land. It’s the latest setback for the city, which has been trying for more than 13 years to open a transit center on the site.

Troy partnered with Birmingham on the transit project in 2000, when Grand/Sakwa donated the land with the condition that the money for the transit center be secured by 2010. Birmingham later backed out.

The city secured an $8.4 million federal grant, but the developer says the money was not acquired before the deadline, meaning the land reverted back to the developer.

In the lawsuit, the city offered to pay Grand/Sakwa $550,000 for the 2.7-acre site. That amount comes from a 2010 appraisal of the land that was completed before the transit center was built.

In a response filed in court, Grand/Sakwa says its concerns go beyond how much the land is worth.

The developer says Troy has not provided the “resources necessary to properly operate and maintain” the transit center.

“Troy’s (projection) for the transportation center shows 167 buses accessing each day the transportation center by crossing Grand/Sakwa’s parking lot,” the document says. “Troy has not provided any analysis or plan of action as to how this traffic situation would ever function and how it would mitigate the substantial impact and interference with the commercial tenants’ businesses at the shopping center or on the access and use of the shopping center by their customers.”

The next step for Troy, said City Attorney Lori Grigg-Bluhm, will be to conduct a new appraisal of the land. The city voted in November to set aside $1.8 million toward purchasing the land if necessary.

“Every federal grant is done on a reimbursement basis. We pay and they reimburse,” Grigg-Bluhm said in an email. “However, we would have assurances that if we spend the money, there will be a reimbursement.”

If the developer agrees to a deal, the litigation will be settled. If not, the city would file a lawsuit to condemn the land.

“There is no plan to demolish the transit center,” said Grigg-Bluhm. “If necessary, a condemnation case would settle the issue of legal title of the real property.”

The 28,000-square-foot transit center was completed last fall and was meant to replace the Amtrak station just across the tracks in Birmingham.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said the rail line can’t sign a lease with Troy until the city owns the property.

“We look forward to a resolution and moving into the Troy transportation center,” he said.

According to the company, the Birmingham stop served 23,257 Amtrak riders in 2013 and 19,712 riders in 2012along the Wolverine line, which runs between Pontiac and Chicago.

The transit center almost wasn’t built. At first, the city council rejected it but later approved a scaled-down version in January 2012.

Councilman Wade Fleming cast the deciding vote in favor after getting assurances that taxpayer money wouldn’t be needed to fund the $30,000 in annual maintenance for the center. Grigg-Bluhm said thus far maintenance and utility costs for the center have been a part of “project costs” and fall under the federal grant funds.

Fleming said he hopes the city can strike a deal with Grand/Sakwa to buy the property.

“We absolutely have to move forward,” said Fleming. “You don’t want to overpay. It’s unfortunate we have to pay anything for it because when we made the decision, the land was supposed to be ours.”

Slater, who fought for approval of the center when he was a councilman, said it is in everybody’s best interest to proceed with purchasing it, “as long as it doesn’t cost the taxpayers anything out of our general fund.”

He says it’s a matter of waiting on the new appraisal.

“Once that comes in,” he said, “I’m hopeful that we can resolve this issue and open the doors.”