Ann Arbor’s A2Zero Plan: Estimating the Improbable

Posted May 26, 2020 by Vivienne Armentrout
Categories: civic finance, Sustainability

The logo for the A2Zero campaign

The A2Zero Plan looks to reduce emissions drastically in the next 10 years. But what are the probabilities that this will succeed? A review of some of the contingencies.

The A2Zero Plan, which is scheduled to come before the Ann Arbor City Council on June 1, is a rambling complex of objectives and strategies that ostensibly was devised to meet the requirements of a Council resolution (November 4, 2019) that called (alternately and confusingly) for a “climate neutrality plan” and a “carbon neutrality plan”. In reading it, evidently what Council was trying to achieve was to map out a strategy to reach “net zero”.   This appears to be the operative phrase:

Whereas, Creating a climate neutrality plan is necessary to identify, plan for, budget, and work towards implementing the actions required to achieve community-wide carbon neutrality.

No other principles or directives are found in the resolution. The staff is being directed to figure out (a “draft plan” is actually mentioned) how Ann Arbor can reach “carbon neutrality”, i.e., net zero carbon produced, by 2030. That is all. No mention of sustainability, equity, or anything else. Just “get us to carbon neutrality”.

The Goal: Taking Our Net Emissions to Zero

Although it is not exactly stated, evidently the purpose is to achieve a net zero carbon dioxide balance (or better, CO2 equivalents [CO2-eq]), though that term is used only once in passing in the resolution. The term can be used in different ways, but I’m pretty sure that the net operating energy is the definition here. “Net Zero” installations typically produce much of their own energy onsite using non-emitting technology, and this balances their carbon cost otherwise. A famous example in Ann Arbor is Matt Grocoff’s Netzero House. Presumably a net zero Ann Arbor would reduce emissions and also bend energy generation toward non-emitting technology such as solar energy generation. The Introduction to the Plan says (p.12):

Simply defined, carbon neutrality is reducing the emissions our community puts into the air down to zero, through actions that minimize output and/or by purchasing greenhouse gas emissions offsets.

Precision is important here because the aim is to counter a climate emergency, which Council has declared. The name of the game in climate is GHG (Greenhouse Gas) emissions. But there are many GHG and they have different climatic effects. Therefore a standard has been devised which states all GHG emissions in terms of the effect of CO2. (Explanation of the term and its uses here.) Happily, the Plan does state results in terms of CO2-eq. Note that the units shown in the lead figure are metric tons of CO2-eq. The number does not appear to reach zero by 2030 except for the electricity contributions.

Lead graphic in A2Zero plan showing carbon load reduction

The Main Points

  • Why are we concerned about the output in CO2-eq? Because we have all heard the dire predictions. I reviewed some of them in this post, Climate Change in Ann Arbor: Investing in the Future, where I linked to and quoted the IPCC report of 2018. And then there was this, Ann Arbor and the Climate Crisis: Policy and Outcomes. Along with many others, I have been anguished (for years, actually) about the vision of the future of the Earth and its children – all because we produce too many Greenhouse Gases. Ann Arbor committees and Councils have expressed a hope that we could mitigate this output for years. Success has been elusive. Apparently Council decided it was time to get down to business.
  • Since this is our objective (reduction of GHG), it makes sense that any plan to address it would have a strict accounting of CO2 emissions and how we expect to address them. It is a matter of arithmetic. Count the emissions. Figure out how to subtract the needed amount. The A2Zero plan does have a number of proposed approaches. But unfortunately most of the proposals have low probability of succeeding.
  • The approaches to carbon neutrality used by other institutions fall into several categories, especially low-carbon energy and heat generation, energy efficiency, and green building approaches. The University of Michigan has a task force addressing this goal (see most recent report). Note that the final report from this group, President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality (PCCN) is due this fall. So far the recommendations are aimed at reducing emission levels.
  • Another method to become “carbon neutral” is to use offsets, meaning that we send money elsewhere to reduce carbon emissions elsewhere in the globe.The spirit of the Council’s directive is, I believe, aimed at reducing emission levels in the City of Ann Arbor. As an environmentally conscious community, we would like to believe that we are doing our best to reduce our own contribution to the CO2-eq burden of the planet. This Plan instead makes liberal use of offsets and other means of essentially shipping our obligation to reduce carbon pollution to other locations, while continuing to add to the emissions with our own activities.
  • The Plan also has many, many proposals aimed at different policy objectives that have little or nothing to do with carbon sparing. While “equity” is a high value and something we should address as a community, it is not related except remotely to addressing CO2 emissions.
  • Just to add to the problems, the actual math in the Plan is defective.  I have no idea how the original database (I assume there was a spreadsheet at some point) looks, but there are so many typos and inconsistencies in this document that it is impossible to analyze. I have sent some detail to the City Council and the Administrator, but here is just one sample: one proposal (Offsets) has two different numbers in the document vs. the summary table. One is 13.2% of the GHG needed and one is 45%. That is not a rounding error. It was my intent (and I built a table) to compare the strategies based on their contribution, but it is impossible with the mangled condition of the report. Numbers do not add up.

State Law, Ann Arbor Regulations, and the Art of the Possible

As noted by the Ann Arbor News, several items are dependent on changes in state law. This
(1) Assumes that state law can be successfully amended to make certain actions impossible under current law possible. They include community solar, building code changes, and community choice aggregation. This seems to be oblivious to the actual steps and political barriers between anything Ann Arbor requests and our majority Republican legislature. Have the drafters of the plan determined which committees will take up a measure, and have they determined that there is a lawmaker who is willing to carry the issue forward?

(2) Assumes that these changes can happen almost instantaneously. Several show timelines that assume state law can change in 2020. Enforcement is to begin in 2021. An example is a proposal to change State building codes to require that all new buildings be built to net zero energy standards. This would likely mean full electrification, among other changes. It would be a substantial change in the way building is done across the State of Michigan.

About dates: Ann Arbor and many others have a fiscal year that begins in July of the preceding year. Thus, though we are currently in the calendar year 2020, our Fiscal Year 2021 (FY21) budget was just approved and in July 2020 we will be transported to the future, or at least to 2021 for the purposes of our civic operations.

Some units (like Washtenaw County) have a calendar year budget. So while the City of Ann Arbor is living in 2021, the County will be comfortingly at home in 2020, until January 2021.  Meanwhile, any agency that lives mostly on Federal funds (like AAATA) uses the Federal fiscal year (beginning in October). So for purposes of Federal grants, we are in 2020 until October.

Effects of Building Code changes

One question that arises from these differences in how dates are used: when the plan says “2020” or 2021″, what does it mean? Will a number for 2021 be as of July 2020, January 2021, July 2021 (midpoint of the calendar year), or December 2021? If we expect to start measuring the outcomes and there will be regular reports, presumably a particular date will be used from year to year. The timeline for “Building Code changes” is a straight-line reduction of emissions, starting in 2021. But that over-simplifies any such course of changes, since even the rate of building new structures is likely to vary. The basis for this estimate is not shown.

Presumed effects of a regional transit system in the Ann Arbor area by 2022.

Other proposals indicate very poor information about the actual status of an issue. There is a blithe assumption that a Regional Transit system will be in place and functioning in 2022. It appears that there was not even a cursory Google search because this story has been all over the place for the last couple of years. We have every detail you could wish in this post, Governance and Transit and Taxes, Oh, My.  If you scroll down to updates 21-25 you will see that the supporters of the RTA tried two separate attempts at revising State law to make a RTA without Macomb County work. The RTA will not be on the ballot this year and possibly never. A lot of reworking in back rooms is probably going on, though maybe not during the pandemic.

Supposing that the RTA does get on the ballot in, say, 2022, it would then have to get the approval of the voters. (There was a prior failure.) The likelihood that anything at all from the RTA will be reducing the carbon load in the next two years is vanishingly small. (Note: the RTA is a functioning authority and has done many good things in the Detroit area. They also collaborated with the AAATA for a Ann Arbor-Detroit bus, sadly discontinued for the pandemic.)

Let’s Rethink

Council asked the Administrator and thus the Office of Sustainability and Innovation for a draft plan. This is indisputably a draft. Like all drafts, it needs a lot of markups. The many errors of estimation and addition do not belong in a finished plan. (The Plan does not show the work used to arrive at these estimations. I assume that there was some. It is impossible to analyze or evaluate without showing how the numbers were derived.) It also needs some project management expertise so that each strategy can be tracked and evaluated over time. I haven’t even begun to address the budgetary implications (the amounts requested would consume nearly our entire City budget over 10 years and are simply infeasible).

I earnestly hope that Council will not be asked to adopt it as a Plan, but will ask the staff to continue fine-tuning the strategies and present them as they are mature and completely calculated with the best information possible. Clearly more work, and more time to do it, are needed.

Ann Arbor’s A2Zero Plan: the Challenge

Posted May 21, 2020 by Vivienne Armentrout
Categories: Basis, civic finance, Sustainability

On June 1, 2020, Ann Arbor’s City Council is scheduled to consider (for the third time) an expansive proposal that has the capability of significant impact on many aspects of life. It is the A2Zero Plan. There is a public hearing scheduled, and numerous explanatory documents are also attached. (See the Legistar link for that list.) It is time for all of us to pay attention.

This plan was launched by a Council resolution. It had a remarkably short timeline for production of a complex plan, and was amended to allow only ten years to make Ann Arbor “carbon neutral”, that is, to generate no net CO2.  It was a bold statement of support by Council to make Ann Arbor a leader in fighting climate change.

The Sustainability staff (led by Missy Stults, Sustainability and Innovations Manager) gamely pitched in, starting with several surveys, holding large town halls, and other invitations to public comment.

Climate_Voter_Yard_Signs_Final-02

Yard sign made available by the Ann Arbor Climate Partnership, based in the Ecology Center

A version  of A2Zero was presented to Council on April 20, but as reported on MLive, Council simply “received” it (this is an acknowledgement, not an approval) and asked for more information. Rather surprisingly, it reappeared on the agenda at the same time as the annual Budget resolution (May 18). The plan calls for considerable investment (about $1 Billion over 10 years) at a time when the City is facing a considerable revenue shortfall. But it was also the subject of an extensive lobbying campaign by a group based in the Ecology Center which has many nonprofit and institutional signatories. The Ann Arbor Climate Partnership is distributing campaign-style signs. The major point of the campaign appears to be adoption of the A2Zero plan. It is not clear who is paying for the expense of the signs, but donations go directly to the Ecology Center. There were many pleas on social media and doubtless Council was inundated with messages supporting the plan. Who is not for conquering global warming?

After a Council session which went on into midmorning of the next day, the item was postponed to the June 1 Council agenda. There is now also a public hearing scheduled. (This had not been made available earlier.) And there is now an updated version of the Plan (remarkably, this was not made available until hours before the Council meeting on May 18, and few people were aware of it). It can be downloaded from the A2Zero website (not the City website). It has been a real effort to obtain current and meaningful information, in spite of the many documents made available. For example, though consultants were employed in preparing this, to my knowledge those reports are not available, or at least not identified as such.

Interim Summary

In my view, this plan has many flaws, apart from the price tag and the current uncertainty about the City’s financial condition. It needs to be scrapped and reconsidered in its entirety. I will be laying out my analysis and commentary on the plan in a series of blog posts. Here are just a few summary points.

  • On examination, many of the points are not really about climate and CO2 emissions. They are really about rather wispy “sustainability” concepts. We all love sustainability. We’ve heard about it for years. I’ve even preached it. But this is supposed to be a plan targeted to a specific objective, namely reducing our carbon load on the planet.
  • Another major theme is called either “justice” or “equitability”, depending on which version you read. Again, we all love the concept of making our society more equitable, but that should not be what this is about. We are trying to reduce carbon emissions.The insertion of affordable housing (another uncontestable good) is not to the point.
  • And in relation to the first two points, much of the plan seems to be pointed at the objective of obtaining policy directives that have been a subject of debate but are not related to climate change. A prime example is the promotion of “density” via changing the zoning map to allow more intense development of formerly single-family zoned areas. This was also a theme of a Master Plan revision previously proposed and stalled in Council. (See The Master Plan and Ann Arbor Emergent.) That debate should be argued out on its own terms.
  • Where are the genuine metrics on CO2 generation? This is poorly explained and every action in this plan should be oriented to that solution. More about this later.
  • Reading the plan and the explanatory notes in detail reveals a depth of unproven assumptions and extrapolations that are startling to find in a document presumably produced by professional staff. Here is one I found at random.

In the Investment Plan, a City expenditure of $35,000 for emergency kits is balanced by a $210,000 annual savings. The note says “Estimated savings from a FEMA report showing that for every $1 invested in prevention, we save $7 in emergency management and response costs.”  Note that the $210,000 savings, which are used in the budget for the plan, actually do not exist. They are based on an assumption (that prevention and the emergency kits are the same) piled on an assumption (that this extrapolation is more than that but is an actual estimate). Is this the quality of all the budget calculations? Careful reading will be necessary.

  • Some aspects of the plan are not possible under current state law. The plan’s “vision” supposes that this will magically change. Anyone who is familiar with the history of Michigan state politics would not make a leap like this for an important fraction (> 38%) of the CO2 generation.
  • Many aspects of the plan are dependent on actions of entities outside the City or the City’s influence and reach. Some of them should be simply excluded as likely probabilities. For example, a regional transit system is postulated, apparently without the information that it has been defeated politically yet again for the near future and the resolution does not appear likely. (For extensive updates on the Detroit Metro RTA, see this.)
  • The plan seems to assume that as long as we can make sure carbon load is incurred outside our actual City borders, we don’t have to count it. Even if our policies cause carbon emissions in themselves, just keep them outside the borders. An egregious example of this is the proposed Park and Ride expansion. This proposes building a substantial acreage of parking lots outside the City and letting commuters park there and take buses in. But the emissions are not ours! And the parking lots will have a carbon effect by themselves, not included since they are outside our borders.
  • In a similar vein, we are not considering the issue of embodied carbon that buildings represent. In fact, this plan is building-friendly. But a growing recognition of the contribution that buildings (third in the worldwide contribution to carbon emissions) make to our global load has meant that many architectural professionals are now considering this to be of primary importance.
  • Simply put, this is an ineffective plan if the point really is to be a carbon-neutral city. The numbers will not add up if calculated honestly.

I hope to elucidate more of this in detail in future posts. It would be reassuring to believe that our leaders are trying to execute this intelligently and honestly. Unfortunately, it seems that the intent is simply to forge ahead regardless of any impediments. It is being characterized as an “opportunity” in the face of the pandemic and the financial barriers.  We are in essence being issued a challenge. As Missy Stults has said,

This idea of being okay with failure, or failure positive as we call it, is a total paradigm shift in most situations, but so is climate change,” Stults said. “So, we have to be comfortable with trying something and being okay coming back and saying, ‘You know, that was not as successful as we thought it was going to be.’ The ultimate objective is a safe climate, it’s a high quality of life. Basically, a bunch of things can fail for different reasons, and we have to be okay with that.”
Read the rest of this post »

Ann Arbor and the Climate Crisis: Policy and Outcomes

Posted September 20, 2019 by Vivienne Armentrout
Categories: Basis, Neighborhoods, politics, Regional, Sustainability

Thoughts on the day of the global climate strike

They can break your heart – all those beautiful children with their bright happy faces and hand-made signs. And the teenagers, with their energy and conviction. Greta Thunberg, with her solemn deliberate face and assured delivery. We (all the humans living and dead since the beginning of the Industrial Age) have let them down. Sorry, kids. Too bad. After all, even the people in high places have known about this for decades. This has been well documented: Losing Earth: A Recent History, by Nathanael Rich, is an excellent example.  (I found that I had to sit down and read it cover to cover, like a novel.)  Most of the people living before the 20th Century might be excused. They were just busy living. But first small voices, then louder ones have been telling us that we were ruining the planet. I still have my original copy of Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance (1992).  Later he made a movie, An Inconvenient Truth (2006) which was very explicit about the causes and effects of global warming. I sat in the audience at the Michigan Theater and like most, I felt that the case had been made. And yet…  Here we are. On the brink. The average global temperature has been continuing to rise, though the 2018 average was slightly lower than the preceding three years (about 0.8° C above the historical mean, according to NOAA).

We noted a number of important studies in the post Climate Change and Ann Arbor: Investing in the Future. The IPCC report issued in 2018 was a substantial one. As somber as it was, it was also a political document (many nations did not want to sign on to the limitations suggested by a temperature increase limited to 1.5° C above the historical average). Not a lot of progress has been seen since then; indeed, we go backwards, especially in the U.S., where we withdrew from the very weak Paris agreement and our EPA has been busily undoing the rather partial attempts at limiting CO2 that were instituted in the Obama administration. Do you believe that Mitch McConnell and other powerful people from the coal states are really moved by those shining child faces?

There are no shortage of reminders. Every day we hear of new disasters and see heat maps. But the effects on our global system are far beyond rising seas and stronger hurricanes. The danger is that the effects on every physical and biological system on the planet that sustains life may exceed its equilibrium limits – the “tipping point”. Plenty of scientists are on the case. Most recently (September 2019) a comprehensive review in Science magazine tells us (with lots of specificity) that a further increase to 2.0 degrees above the historical mean will cause effects that are accelerated, not merely linear. And it appears likely that we are headed that way.

Hopes and Prayers

So what can we do on a local level?  We have two courses of action, not mutually exclusive.

  1. Amelioration. We do what we are able as a single small city not to add to the global CO2 burden. This will not help us locally, but it’s the right thing to do.
  2. Adaptation. We consider what policies can help our community survive and thrive over the decades to come. In other words, we try to be a resilient community.

It is increasingly being recognized that a local response will be necessary for human communities.  The Association for the Advancement of Science (a venerable organization that served mostly for a long time as the publisher of scientific papers in its journal Science) has become increasing active in advocacy and education. This recent article, How We Respond, is an ongoing report of local community response.

We first need to decide what the desired outcomes for our community are. Then we need to evaluate all our policies and consider how they will lead to those outcomes. This thoughtful account of one community’s effort  makes the important point that a city is a complex system. Atlanta has historical problems with equity, economic development and (increasingly) environment. They adopted a multi-sectoral approach (the Just Growth Circle) with extensive collaboration. But as they indicate, often incentives point in opposing directions and building collaborative efforts is not automatic or easy.

Certainly our policies (the City of Ann Arbor) exhibit cognitive dissonance when compared to our stated goals. For most of this century, policy decisions have been firmly pointed toward growth, wealth generation, and especially economic development in the form of attracting more and more high-tech firms. They have also encouraged growth in terms of increasing development of real estate, which generates wealth. Our stated goals are for “sustainability” but growth of the form we are encouraging is not sustainable and leads to more CO2 generation. They are for “equity” but the search for high-value technology firms has brought an influx of highly paid workers, and concurrently real estate development to provide high-yield housing for these workers. This results in increased values for real estate, which has resulted in displacement of current residents and lack of housing for lower-income workers.  How many residents can our land-locked little city really support?

What will be adaptive in consideration of changes to come? Of course, first we need to estimate what those changes will be, and predicting the future is difficult. Our local climate has been relatively forgiving. But global changes will affect us too. We need a more considered, system-wide view that considers what environment those charming children will inherit.

UPDATE: City Council will consider moving toward a carbon neutrality plan. Here is the Council resolution 11.4.19 that describes the problem. Will the solution consider all the inputs, including a limit on growth?

The Master Plan and Ann Arbor Emergent

Posted July 6, 2019 by Vivienne Armentrout
Categories: civic finance, Neighborhoods, politics, Regional, Sustainability

Cities are born, live, and die. Like any living thing, they are changing constantly. For most of us who live in one, we don’t see the beginning and the end, only the change. Ann Arbor, of course, is constantly changing. Here is what we said in the post, Ann Arbor Emergent.

Ann Arbor is rushing toward the future.  Each day, each moment, events small and large are shaping the new reality.  There is no possibility of remaining anchored in the past because we are leaving that behind us.  The only question is what shape the future will take and who will frame it.  What will emergent Ann Arbor be like and whose vision will best describe it?

So much of the civic debate about policy in Ann Arbor has been about the direction of change.  It has precisely been about the question of whose vision will guide the city as its new shape emerges.  The two opposing sides in this debate have been given many names, none of them adequately descriptive. Most recently, we defined them as the Powers That Be and the Neighborhoods. In that post (The Primary Struggle for the Future of Ann Arbor), we described the Powers That Be as the “majority”, which is no longer quite appropriate, since seats on Council other than the Mayor shifted from one side to the other in the 2018 election.  That post defined a number of the issues under contention. The Neighborhoods are generally understood to be long-term residents of Ann Arbor, though not all long-term residents agree on many points.

The accusation by the Powers and their supporters, like the self-named YIMBYs, has been that the Neighborhoods are opposed to change. This is wrong on its face (not all change is the same, and long-term residents don’t oppose everything that is change) and in practical reality, since change is constant.  While each decision by Council guides change to some extent, we are now about to experience a potential major shift in focus and purpose to emergence of a future Ann Arbor. Our city is embarking on a new Master Plan, and the consequences are likely to be substantial.  This is a moment when all sides and all citizens can engage at a meaningful level.

Master Plan

The Master Plan is both literally and figuratively the foundation for city planning.  For most cities, it is the projection of the city’s vision of the future, and a map for how to get there.  In Michigan, this process is determined by the Planning Enabling Act  (P.A. 33 of 2008).  As the Act says,

A master plan shall address land use and infrastructure issues and may project 20 years or more into the future. A master plan shall include maps, plats, charts, and descriptive, explanatory, and other related matter and shall show the planning commission’s recommendations for the physical development of the planning jurisdiction.

Historically, the Master Plan has had no statutory authority (it is not a law, merely a suggestion) but has been used to direct policy.  The legal direction for land use is the zoning ordinance and map, which is wrapped around with many restrictions and directions as to how a particular parcel may be used. The zoning map is a to some degree a reflection of the Master Plan that is sometimes subject to change.    We have often seen Council award zoning or approve site plans for developers of projects that do not harmonize with the Master Plan.  And yet the argument that “this is not consistent with the Master Plan” or “this reflects the Master Plan” is often heard in rezoning and planning debates.  My reading of the Planning and Enabling Act is that there is some intent to coordinate these two planning functions in this relatively recent rework of Michigan law.  Specifically,

For a local unit of government that has adopted a zoning ordinance, a zoning plan for various zoning districts controlling the height, area, bulk, location, and use of buildings and premises. The zoning plan shall include an explanation of how the land use categories on the future land use map relate to the districts on the zoning map.

The Zoning Ordinance (now properly called the Unified Development Code) itself becomes very granular.  Each zoning classification has attributes clearly defined, down to physical limits (height, setback, parking requirements, and other), and each parcel has its place.  The truly marvelous Ann Arbor Zoning Map shown on GIS (Geographical Information Service) refers by number to a PDF file showing the zoning classifications for each area.  (Because it is GIS, it has many layers showing many characteristics of this terrain, but we are talking zoning.) Want to know your own zoning and that of your neighbors?  This is the place.

The Ann Arbor zoning reference map as shown on GIS (mapAnnArbor). The individual marked squares are references to zoning maps for specific sections.

Once you have identified the section of the map that interests you, you may enlarge the magnification to study detail.  Or you may simply note the numbered square and go directly to the pdf file that shows a parcel-by-parcel zoning classification.

Zoning map for a portion of the Burns Park neighborhood. The PL is Burns Park school and park. Note the different residential zoning classifications.

Current status

The City of Ann Arbor’s Master Plan is currently a collection of plans, not a single document.  The Land Use Plan (2009) is what we usually think of when citing the Master Plan.  This incorporates several area plans: Lower Town, Central Area (1992), University of Michigan Property, West Stadium Boulevard Commercial Corridor, and also the Northeast Area (2006), South Area (1990), and West Area (1995) plans.  This version of the Land Use Plan was actually a compilation by Planning staff of existing plans.  Some of us who observed this process felt there may have been some changes and omissions in the cut-and-paste. The original area plans were the product of citizen committees and long public sessions and hearings. The residents of the designated areas were the major decision-makers and citizens from elsewhere in the city were not much involved in the specific areas.  The Downtown Plan (2009) was a complete rewrite of the previous plan; “A2D2” was a product of the first wave of serious development push in which height limits and parking requirements were changed drastically.  Likewise, an ambitious Transportation Plan Update (2009) called for serious investment in rail transit via several projects that have not been realized. (A new Transportation Plan Update is now underway, with a consultant and a committee at work. No news yet.)  The PROS Plan is revised by the Parks Commission every five years (the current one is through 2020). And notably, the Treeline Allen Creek Urban Trail was incorporated into the Master Plan in 2017.

All these different plans have been adopted by the Planning Commission as part of the Master Plan, which means that they are policy documents and in theory are all directives for future action.  A “plan”, if adopted by the appropriate body (which is most often the City Council) has some force, though many parts may never be implemented.

There are many other documents listed as “resource documents” that are not part of the Master Plan, although some of them are called “plans”.  Note, for example, the Connecting William Street Plan, which was produced by the DDA as the result of a long public process after the City Council requested that the DDA formulate a plan for use of the block containing the Library Lot.  The final plan got a cold shoulder from the Council, indeed, it was never taken up. (It basically envisioned how each part of the area in question could be developed to the maximum height and density.) In a somewhat questionable move, the Planning Commission placed this rejected plan on its resource list.  If it had been more successful, it too would doubtless be part of the Master Plan.  This story is instructive because it illustrates how the Planning Commission can act autonomously, not merely as an advisory committee to the Council.

Process

After a public hearing on May 21, 2019, the Planning Commission adopted a resolution approving “the allocation of resources to solicit both consultant assistance and internal support of a comprehensive master plan update process, rooted in extensive public engagement”.   The staff report cites quite a few concerns. They are, briefly (but in same order as named in the report)

  • The long periods, some as long as 30 years, since adoption of some sections
  • Possible local effects of global warming
  • The combined volume and number of plans and resource documents, making policy difficult to parse
  • Affordability “a … challenge for the City in supporting a diverse population, a robust workforce, and sustainability goals”
  • Aging of the population
  • Increasing population
  • The number of commuters and transportation challenges this entails.

Somewhat confusingly, the Planning administration had already posted an RFP (request for proposals) seeking a consultant to perform the update. The due date for proposals in answer to RFP 19-06 was set as March 7, 2019, two months before the resolution passed by the Planning Commission.  There is now a committee evaluating the eleven proposals.  Once they have made a recommendation, the contract with the winner will go to Council for approval.

Themes

The RFP provides quite a few clues as to the weight and potential impact of the Master Plan revision. It contains a number of directives to the prospective consultant.

Values

The consultant is asked to begin by developing a set of City values that may be used to evaluate potential consequences of implementation. They are characterized as “high-level evaluation tools (e.g. equity, affordability, sustainability)”.  They are evidently intended to carry real weight. “The City aspires to use such values to help support the shift from aspirations to realizations of community goals.” 

It is expected that a “vision statement” will be part of a plan.  The current Land Use Plan has one which is descriptive of the different systems of the City.  But it also indicates the expected product. “The quality of life in Ann Arbor will be characterized by its diversity, beauty, vibrancy and livability…”  (from the current Plan)

If values such as those named earlier are used to evaluate every scenario in the Plan, it implies a standard that all provisions must match in some form. As an extreme example, does our park system justify itself in terms of equity and affordability?  We have withdrawn a great deal of land from our total city area in search of natural beauty, recreation, and quality of life.  If you think this is far-fetched, you may not know that the City Council of the mid-1980s refused to put the first park millage on the ballot because parks were viewed as “elitist”.

Participation

The RFP laudably puts “civic engagement” near the top.  This is an important step for a master plan affecting the entire community.   It calls for “an innovative, multi-format public engagement process that gathers input from a diverse section of the City, including students, residents, workers/commuters, owners and employers“. However, it also calls for participation of “those who experience the City in varied ways, as … commuters, and potentially aspiring community members“.  This indicates that people who are not currently residing here or who do not own businesses here will have some say over the future development of the City.  This raises a lot of questions, including one about how those participants will be chosen or recruited.

Plan Consolidation

As noted, there are currently 8 plans and 18 resource documents. The desired result will consolidate all this into a single document less than 100 pages in length.  What is wanted is a “unified master plan, that … consolidates the goals of these numerous documents, identifies (and to a large extent reconciles) contradictions within the numerous documents”.

This is something of an earthquake within our current planning structure.  It implies considerable editing and condensation of specific plans, most of which were done with public input and often much thought and compromise in order to accommodate a variety of views.  As we learned with last year’s condensation of our zoning code into the current Unified Development Code, there can be many omissions, deletions, and even errors in such a process.  It is almost impossible for interested citizens and elected representatives to track the extent of such changes.  Just as one illustration of a potential effect, the inclusion of the Connecting William Street project (never accepted by Council) in the resource documents suggests how shading and insertion of material could alter the overall plan.

Refocus Land Use

It is clear that an important goal here is to wipe the slate clean and start over again as far as land use goes.  Currently our land use map is a accretion of decisions made over decades, often hard-fought and hard-won. The zoning map pins down uses in each area and preservation of neighborhood character has been one of the important criteria.  Here is what the RFP says about this:

Identify a future land use plan that addresses the fundamental goals of the City. For example, the plan should identify land use strategies for affordability, sustainability, and a realistic vision for accommodating projected and/or desired population and job growth in the City through 2050 and beyond. This effort will result in a consolidated land use map that uses a single set of land use categories throughout the City, that no longer reflect the subtle distinctions that the current City-by-area land use maps reflect.

And:

…evaluate the current site-specific recommendations from the existing master plan, and eliminate as appropriate. The City seeks to shift from such site-specific recommendations toward character areas, corridors or districts whenever possible, that articulate a character or expectation of how a larger neighborhood might develop, and interact with surrounding areas of the City.

Action Plan

The revised Master Plan is intended to go beyond the usual general vision and set of recommendations.  As indicated in the Planning Enabling Act, a zoning plan will be prepared simultaneously to enact the policies indicated.  (The answers to questions about the RFP specifies that the consultant is to develop the zoning plan.)  Thus, this will be a muscular set of directives ready to go into action.

The document will include a fully prioritized implementation schedule that identifies the highest to lowest priority actions (i.e. ordinance amendment recommendations, further planning recommendations, development review process evaluations/recommendations) for the City to undertake to realize the vision identified in this new Master Plan. (from the RFP)

Where we are at this moment

While the RFP specifies a beginning in July 2019, we are some distance away yet.  The evaluations committee is presumably continuing to evaluate the proposers and their offerings.  Eleven different sets of professionals take a while to sort out.  (I don’t know of any public access to the deliberations of the committee.)  Once they make a determination, a contract will have to be negotiated and will have to be approved by Council.

What Does It All Mean?

It is clear to me and to anyone who is paying attention that this is a major leap toward the objective of upzoning Ann Arbor.  There has been open talk of eliminating single-family zoning. There has been discussion for years of the need for “missing middle” housing (2-3-4 or more units per parcel).  But if the Master Plan is massively redrawn, it could be a push toward even more intensive development.  This is likely to be density, density, and more density.  We’ve been hearing about it long enough.

The objective that is always cited is affordable housing. We’ll have to discuss the likelihood of that outcome at some other time. To date, most new, denser development has been at the high end of the market (i.e. expensive, not affordable).  This is accord with what is happening nationwide.  Developers are in business.  They build to maximize profit from investment. Unless subsidized, they are not going to build “affordable” housing, no matter how you define that.

Ann Arbor will change, no matter what happens. Only in the last year, many new, denser projects have been approved. The whole block on E. Hoover will be a huge apartment complex. At almost every Council meeting, a new development is approved without controversy. The Lockwood proposal for an intrusive senior citizen complex in a single-family zone was defeated partly because of its conflict with the Master Plan.  Density advocates took that hard. But this was an exception.

Our current planning mechanism doesn’t award any obvious winners and losers. There are wins and losses on all sides, and often politics does play a role.  (Doesn’t it in all things?)  What appears to be proposed here is to change the rules so that the outcome is predetermined.

If we who live here want to have a role in determining the face of emergent Ann Arbor, we’ll need to pay attention and participate to the extent possible. The future of the city is in the balance.

 

 

 

Climate Change and Ann Arbor: Investing in the Future

Posted November 23, 2018 by Vivienne Armentrout
Categories: Sustainability

Ann Arbor as a citizenry and as a civic body has always considered that we are naturally environmental leaders.  We got there early on recycling, planted lots of trees, preserved lots of natural areas with distinct plant communities, and (if not always perfectly) addressed issues of water pollution, stormwater management and general responsible behavior on environmental issues.  We have supplied a major voter base for countywide or regional park and land preservation millages (kill sprawl!) and transit ballots.  Now we are faced, as is the nation and the world, with a desperate situation well beyond any simple local fixes.  Climate change is becoming more and more evident as a serious threat to a comfortable existence or even to life itself.

This dramatic conclusion is based in part on a recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which has been much quoted lately. There have been numerous studies about the phenomenon and its effects.  So many of them have dealt with loss of species globally (The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert is a good start).  But this not very digestible study is actually acknowledged to be a conservative consensus statement, yet it lays it right out there.

Climate-related risks to health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, human security, and economic growth are projected to increase with global warming of 1.5°C and increase further with 2°C.

That means an average global temperature increase of 1.5° degrees C (about 2.7° degrees F).  And when are we projected to reach that? Sooner than we want to hear about.

From the IPCC SR1.5 report, October 2018.

This graph appears to indicate that the average temperature will increase to that 1.5° C amount in 2040. But note: there is a range indicated along that curve and the world average could move to the top of the range. See that spike in a recent year?  That could mean that we arrive at a higher average earlier. And an important timing note: Avoiding overshoot and reliance on future large-scale deployment of carbon dioxide removal (CDR) can only be achieved if global CO2 emissions start to decline well before 2030.  

So in other words, in 12 years from now, we’ll need extreme or possibly technological unavailable methods to retard warming if we haven’t already achieved that.The report adopts a somewhat optimistic tone that proposes a combination of carbon dioxide removal and major adaptive technology and policy changes.   (Note that warming is not solely due to carbon dioxide; there are other greenhouse gases and physical effects such as change in albedo because of deforestration and ice melting. That is the “non-CO2 radiative forcing” part of the model.) But it is hard to share those hopes given today’s world, including our own national government and its pro-coal stance.  Section D-5 implies a considerable “Kumbaya moment” on the part of the international community.

The systems transitions consistent with adapting to and limiting global warming to 1.5°C include the widespread adoption of new and possibly disruptive technologies and practices and enhanced climate-driven innovation. These imply enhanced technological innovation capabilities, including in industry and finance.

In other words, the nations and institutions of the world will really have to cooperate and give up a considerable amount of autonomy to prevent the predicted outcome.

There is no shortage of glum reports and predictive models out there.  Numerous scientific papers have explored the effects of current and predicted climate changes on many social, biological and physical systems. Just the day after Thanksgiving (November 23, 2018) the Fourth National Climate Assessment was released.  We will not review that here. Needless to say, little good news.  And earlier this year an august group of scientists published a report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA) that warns of a possible tipping point in which Earth systems could be thrown completely off kilter, into a condition they call “Hothouse Earth”.

…we argue that social and technological trends and decisions occurring over the next decade or two could significantly influence the trajectory of the Earth System for tens to hundreds of thousands of years and potentially lead to conditions that resemble planetary states that were last seen several millions of years ago, conditions that would be inhospitable to current human societies and to many other contemporary species.

What’s A City to Do?

All this has not gone unnoticed in Ann Arbor.  The City passed a Climate Action Plan (mostly just CO2 reduction) in 2012. Unfortunately, those goals were not met and there have been some revisions. Last year the Council announced that it would use part of the County mental health millage “rebate” for climate change action.  Most of what was proposed in early memos was basically going to electrical solutions (which are possibly getting more climate-friendly, though there are still many coal power plants) and trying to switch as many functions to solar as possible.  More recently a newly expanded City department of Sustainability and Innovations proposed a multi-faceted approach, much of which was also focused on solar and electric power, plus a dose of energy conservation. The proposal became snarled in its funding source, which was controversial (the lamented Mental Health Millage rebate).  Another point of contention has been the rapid expansion of the Sustainability and Innovation Office.  The office has grown from one person (Matt Naud, the longtime coordinator for the Environmental Council) to four or five (one position is vacant). The original proposal called for an increase in the budget for that office, which it was understood would be used for salary supplements for the new staff.  After a failure of the original resolution and some amendments, the result was funding for some particular projects but the money came from the General Fund, leaving the question of use of the millage open till another day.  The extra money to the department did not make it through the cuts.

New Talent, New Directions?

As the prospects for the world (and the City) have grown more urgently dire, it is reassuring that the new Director of Sustainability and Innovations comes with seriously impressive credentials. Missy Stults (her name is formally Melissa, but evidently this is the name she uses for all purposes) has a Ph.D. in urban resilience and a number of seriously heavy publications to her credit.  One of them was a review of urban resilience which laid out a number of the issues involved. What’s that, you say? Urban what? Here is their definition:

Urban resilience refers to the ability of an urban system-and all its constituent socio-ecological and socio-technical networks across temporal and spatial scales–to maintain or rapidly return to desired functions in the face of a disturbance, to adapt to change, and to quickly transform systems that limit current or future adaptive capacity.

One very important word there: adapt.  This highlights the more recent trend in discussion of climate change effects.  Basically, many people in this field now acknowledge that we probably aren’t going to make it.  That is, we will not succeed as a world in reducing CO2 to the recommended levels. So the emphasis in recent years, as seen in the literature, is adaptation.  How can we live in a changed world that is suffering the effects of climate change?  This is something on which we can hope for leadership from Stults and her crew, since she has written extensively on adaptation as well as resilience.

What Ann Arbor has done mostly up to now, as displayed on the Sustainability page, has been to offer a miscellany of environmentally good practices, all nice but not solving the local problem. (As an extreme example, last year a local nonprofit was given a grant to put stickers on compostable containers. I didn’t see them but I assume it was a guide to proper materials.)  I will continue to recycle and take toxics to the County until the end of my days, but that won’t solve the likely effects of climate change on our community.  Doing an occasional NetZero demonstration project, buying an electric car for the City fleet, and putting a few solar panels on City buildings will not help us adapt, and sadly will not do much about the world’s problem either, since the infinitesimal fraction of CO2 that these will save is almost pointless (if admirable) in the face of Poland and Germany relying on coal power and the President of the United States lifting regulations on coal plants.

Capitalism and Contradictions

Ann Arbor has been on a development binge since the early years of this century.  There was a major push to rezone the downtown and commercial areas in order to promote more dense development, and the buildings are just getting taller and taller.  (You did notice that height limits were essentially removed in D1? And that giveaway to the developer of the Broadway parcel where he was awarded the most forgiving zoning classification possible?)   Meanwhile, we talk green. The Mayor’s Green Fair. The Greenbelt (which is supposed to make up for development within the City). Recycling (too bad about that MRF). More bike paths (but hold the parks).  These small cosmetic efforts do not really make up for the immense carbon footprint that we are adding with those buildings.  Every building creates a material flow (inputs, outputs, including energy) that is a significant stress on the planet. A recent article on this subject states it this way:

…this acceleration, which took off in 2002, was not a short-term phenomenon but continues since more than a decade. Between 2002 and 2015, global material extraction increased by 53% in spite of the 2008 economic crisis…We find that in such a scenario until 2050 average global metabolic rates double...(indicating) a grand challenge calling for urgent action, fostering a continuous and considerable reduction of material flows to acceptable levels.

So while at the same time we’ve been patting ourselves on the back and rebranding traditional environmentalism as “sustainability” or even “climate change mitigation”, our policies have been literally driving up the temperature.

We have a new Council now with some thoughtful additions. But it will be up to all of us to figure out the adaptation strategies that can work for our community in an equitable and reasonably comfortable manner. It is quite a challenge.

Note: The date shown for this post is confusingly November, 2018.  However, it was actually posted on January 1, 2019.

I mistakenly “published” my first draft in November and was able to take it back to draft status only after it had already attracted a comment. Actual publication was delayed until January 1.

Commenting policy: Many blogs have a commenting policy that provides for moderation of comments before they are posted.  I have never done that, expecting that my commenters will treat me with the respect that I treat them. Recently one commenter chose to treat this post as a platform for what can only be described as a long chain of rants.  It is incredible, but it seems that climate change is even more of a hot-button issue than Ann Arbor politics.

Be aware that if you do not follow my commenting policy, your comment will be deleted. What is that policy?  It can be viewed under “About”.

Local In Ann Arbor

Posted September 15, 2018 by Vivienne Armentrout
Categories: Basis, Local Food

Exactly ten years ago today,  the world financial system received a shock whose impact is still affecting the course of history.  This was, of course, the demise of Lehman Brothers. (For an excellent history and analysis of the effects of the financial crisis, see this recent article in the New Yorker (September 17,2018.)  I was not particularly surprised, though the roller coaster of those days affected me much as it did most people. But I had been anticipating disaster.  I read The Black Swan when it was first published in 2007. This is a complicated and difficult read, but its basic message is that simplistic predictions are likely to fail. Events can follow a chaotic path, which doesn’t mean jumbled, but obeying a mathematical course explained in the science of complexity (chaos theory). Taleb explains this at great confusing length, but he has one memorable metaphor (paraphrased below).  He suggests that we (were) due for a surprise.

If one uses past behavior to predict the future, consider the turkey. All is going well. He is protected from predators, fed well, given shelter and room to run. Day after day brings nothing but good news. Then comes Thanksgiving.  

Straight-line growth. It just keeps going!

 

This was especially meaningful to me because as a Washtenaw County Commissioner (1997-2004), I was exposed to numerous budget meetings in which the budget director continually pronounced that “the best predictor of the future is the past” and presented graphs showing that the County revenue would grow continuously in a straight line!  The early 2000s were the period in which we were battling sprawl – unrestrained development in rural areas.  The tax base was growing hugely and the resulting revenue was making the County look very rich indeed.  The message was that we could spend freely since the money would just keep coming and coming.  It became clear to me that we were addicted to growth. But growth must by its nature be limited and the rate of growth we were experiencing seemed unsustainable.  And indeed, by 2007 Michigan was in a severe economic slump.  (The period of 2000-2009 is now called Michigan’s lost decade.)

Meanwhile, there were other troublesome economic indicators. The price of oil had been rising steadily over the decade, reaching a price of over $160 per barrel in June, 2008.  As I confessed later, I had been a subscriber to dystopian thinking (including the peak oil concept) for some time. My response was to focus on concepts of sustainability (the classic concept, not the self-serving development concept).  I expanded my vegetable garden, began promoting the local food concept (see my Ann Arbor Observer article, Meet the Locavores), and began a blog, Voltaire’s Garden.  This is a reference to the French philosopher Voltaire’s often-quoted recommendation to “cultivate our garden” as a response to hardship and cruelty in the world abroad. This post, May You Live in Interesting Times, explains that history.  Note the emphasis on creating an island of survival and prosperity in the midst of scarcity and disruption.

Localization as an Academic Subject

The semester following the financial meltdown, I gained access (through my activities on local food) to an informal seminar series that was being conducted by some graduate students at the School of Natural Resources and Environment (SNRE) at the University of Michigan.  I don’t recall the title, if it had one, but there were many speakers, both invited and student participants, on subjects ranging from how to fight food deserts in Detroit,  to the futurist Nicole Foss, and others discussing everything from the coming energy crisis to how local farms might be established. (The pioneering farmer Richard Andres was a strong influence.)  It was a heady time, with the sense of a beginning revolution.  To me, the outstanding moment was a lecture by UM professor Thomas Princen on the subject of localization.  Dr. Princen’s field of specialization is economic and ecological sustainability and he has written several books.  Here is my review of one of them, The Logic of Sufficiency. It posits many of the same concepts of classic sustainability (with an equilibrium rather than growth) that I find so attractive.

Here is the handout that he passed out that day in February.  I found it electrifying.  It is a response to the evident financial stresses of the moment, as well as the impending energy crisis.  This is shown by the definition:

Localization is a process of social change brought on by unavoidable declines in available energy, as well by diminishing natural resource and waste sink capacities. Attention, individual and collective, is oriented toward direct relations, social and biophysical.

At the time I didn’t understand how controversial this might be. It pushes back against so many of the trends that we have come to accept in an age of globalization.

Each locality should solve as many of its own problems as possible and do so in ways suited to its own biophysical and social conditions. (and) Localizers should organize their own local food and water supplies before re-organizing the country or the world. If higher levels of authority are needed to ensure local provisioning, then one organizes at those levels. Otherwise, one looks inward to local capacities, local infrastructure and local needs.

This is basically the principle that the resilient communities movement adopts.  For a time, the international Transition movement was similarly oriented toward a self-sustaining community.  Here is my account of a local Transition organizing meeting (April 2009, in the same time frame as the discussion I have been relating).

And here is the recommendation that I truly took to heart.

Place-based Decisionmaking Principle: When critical life-support systems are at risk, key decisions should reside with those who demonstrate a connection and commitment to place, not with those who are placeless. This “residential” principle says that people who live and work in a community are more likely to represent community values, be dependent on the coherence and durability of the community in place, and know that place.

In today’s environment with the emphasis on equity and accommodation, this is likely to raise eyebrows, if not blood pressures.  And yet it is based on a “lifeboat” view of how a community may survive when the world is unfriendly. In its own way it echoes Voltaire’s island against the world.  If we once again experience food shortages and lack of sufficient resources to carry on a minimal standard of life, it may seem to be the only course.

Princen went on to teach a course in Localization for several semesters, using a textbook that a colleague, Raymond de Young (also an instructor in the course), and he wrote, The Localization Reader. Most chapters are by other authors, and some, like the essays by Wendell Berry, are classics.

Self-governance and the City of Ann Arbor

Note that the emphasis in the conceptual discussion of localization is on the ability of local populations to make decisions for themselves.  Thus, I determined to support the concept of localization in my writing and politics.  This was the reason for beginning Local in Ann Arbor. The neighborhoods are simply organs (in a biological sense) of the local community and its residents.  They have been fighting a rearguard action against those who would instead use Ann Arbor as a means to wealth, even if it means displacement of long-time residents.  (This was explained at length in my August 2018 pre-election post, The Primary Struggle for the Future of Ann Arbor.)  Here is the plea I made in that post (emphasis added):

Some have accused the Neighborhoods of being elitists and implied that they are worse. But actually, the shoe is on the other foot.  The whole thrust and focus is to wealth creation at the expense of long-time residents, many of whom are not particularly well off. Who owns the city? Current residents and businesses, or a future populace who are not here yet? Should a small group of elected and appointed officials make all the decisions and determine the course of the city? Or should the citizenry be empowered to help set the course?

As I indicated in that post, the problem is that Ann Arbor has become so attractive a place to live that property can essentially be mined for “gold”.  Wealth creation is a powerful drive.

On to the Future

Conditions have changed since 2009.  Oil prices have gone down (but are going up again) and there have been a number of adaptations (renewable energy taking the place of fossil fuels even in commercial generation; a robust local food economy) that make our current state less perilous. But the rapid advance of climate change and global warming make worldwide, if not local, economic and resource availability uncertain.  We have an unpredictable chief executive in the White House and there are many changes occurring and more likely in the Federal structure that we have come to depend on.  There are skirmishes, humanitarian disasters, and migration surges everywhere.  Water shortages and infrastructure failures are an increasing concern.  I don’t think that cultivation of our garden (or our resilient local community) is yet uncalled for.

Still, I think that I have said enough in the support of localization (which was, after all, the purpose of Local In Ann Arbor).  I have a couple more things to get off my mind, and then I will be closing this blog and moving on to another project.  I’m grateful for the readership I have enjoyed over the last decade.

UPDATE:  Today (September 17, 2018) the Local in Ann Arbor scene took a couple of blows. Mary Morgan, the former publisher of the Ann Arbor Chronicle (an invaluable local news site) and founder of the CivCity Initiative (a nonprofit devoted to encouraging citizens to be involved in local government), has announced that she will be relocating and the nonprofit will be terminated.  Both of these highly estimable projects failed to attract sufficient monetary support from the public to make them feasible over the long term.  She will be missed. Bouquets, Mary, and I hope there is a good donut shop where you are going.

Steve Bean, who has been part of our local scene for many years (read about his run for Mayor) also mentioned as an aside on Facebook that he is relocating to parts unknown.  Here’s hoping he finds a suitable person to take over his permaculture garden.  Ann Arbor will be just a little less interesting.

SECOND UPDATE:  Mary Morgan’s exit interview by Concentrate contains this interesting observation:

There’s tension or outright hostility between people with different visions of what Ann Arbor should be. Those divisions are becoming fossilized. So now, rather than responding to proposals that should be debated on their merits, people are reacting to the individual who proposed the idea – trying to suss out whether someone is “with us or against us,” and then arguing based on those assumptions. It’s toxic.

I don’t know that I wholly agree, but this reflects some of my disillusionment with Ann Arbor politics. It has gotten just plain nasty.  One reason I am “leaving town” as well (though staying in place).

This Land is – Our Land?

Posted August 31, 2018 by Vivienne Armentrout
Categories: Basis, civic finance, politics, Sustainability

This land is your land, this land is my land…This land is made for you and me. — Woody Guthrie

The concept of public land goes back so far that it is practically racial memory. The history of many peoples has been the war over open common land vs. privately held lands. Even today there are wars in some locations (e.g., Africa) between herders and farmers. Perhaps the best documented case of a transition from publicly held to privately held land, enclosure, is in England.  Enclosure led to wealth for those who held the land, and forced many laborers into cities where they formed the basis of the Industrial Revolution.  In this country, the great expanses of land “liberated” from the indigenous peoples who treated them as a common birthright made land ownership available to many common people via the Homestead Act. Property ownership is still one of the best predictors of wealth accumulation and a great majority of people still hope to own their “little bit of heaven”.  But despite this drive, we tend to see public land as ours, held in common. In other words, it is our land, to be used for our benefit.

Public Land in Ann Arbor, Defined

Probably the greatest cause of civic strife in Ann Arbor over the years has been the dispute over public land. What is it? First, it is owned by a public entity, whether that is the public schools (but not a charter school), the University of Michigan, or an authority such as the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority.  But when owned by the City of Ann Arbor, – that is when many of us feel ownership.

Public Land is a zoning category and is shown on maps as PL.  As defined,  “This district is designed to classify publicly owned uses and land and permit the normal principal and incidental uses required to carry out governmental functions and services.”   

It has 10 “permitted uses”.It seems clear that the authors of this classification were thinking about parks right off the top.  Note that sentence in the first use about structures that are not incidental to the use of the land?  The first three items are about parks and open space. Most of the others are about obvious governmental functions, though item (f) might raise some questions. The PL designation is restrictive and creates a barrier to development.

Zoning for two important blocks along William St. Dark red is D1, burnt umber is D2.

Public ownership does not mean PL zoning.  For example, none of the public parking lots in the downtown are PL. They are all zoned D1 (core downtown) or D2 (edge). (The Ann Arbor GIS system contains a very detailed zoning map.)

Two of the most hotly disputed public land holdings in Ann Arbor, the old Y lot and the Library Lot, have never been zoned PL. Note that the Ann Arbor District Library and the Blake Transit Center (and Post Office) are all PL, as is Liberty Plaza.  This means that those parcels could not be developed unless they are rezoned, but no such obstacle exists for the two former parking lots.

Proper Uses of Public Land

So regardless of zoning, what is the proper use of land owned by a public entity? One hopes that it is for a civic purpose, that is, a purpose that will enhance the condition of the civic body, its residents, its businesses, and its private property owners (taxpayers).

And how do we define that civic purpose?  That is the job of the policymakers (City Council and certain boards and authorities).  We have many policy priorities in the City of Ann Arbor, well recognized and discussed over years. They include environmental objectives such as energy conservation, management of storm water, and conservation of open space;  enhancement of business activities (especially in regard to downtown properties), and attention to zoning and planning dictates. Another objective that has become more and more urgent is the provision of affordable housing, both in the sense of subsidized housing for the most vulnerable populations and in so-called “workforce” housing for moderate-income (60%- 100% or sometimes even 120% of median annual wage) people.  And for downtown parcels, parking for automobiles is still desired, though often criticized.

But wait – there is another objective.  Land in Ann Arbor has become so valuable that it is a resource ripe for extraction.  One can actually mine money from it, especially if it is in or near downtown. Given the perennial structural deficit that the City often runs, and the ambitions of the Council majority (and now, our very forward-looking City Administrator), it is irresistible to look for a cash return as well.  The downtown parcels are actually pots of money just sitting there unrealized.

Given the value of downtown parcels, it is a temptation for Council to try to attain all their policy goals and at the same time realize a cash return.  This inevitably sets them up for some awkward gymnastics. Developers may wish to develop downtown, but they also insist on making a profit.  It is called “Return On Investment”.  After all, developing parcels and negotiating with politicians is a lot of work.

Another complication is that there has been a fluctuating policy in which sale of city property was designated to be deposited in the City Affordable Housing Trust Fund.  The history was well reviewed in the Ann Arbor Chronicle. This policy puts a moral and political pressure on the Council to obtain a cash return on the property.  But obtaining cash and also the type of development that they want is truly challenging.

Let’s Do an RFP

The most direct and effective way for Council to obtain policy goals and also a reasonable financial objective is to execute a Request for Proposals.  Typically these invite proposals from developers to fit some predetermined criteria and also invite them to offer their best price.  Also typically, there need to be some guidelines for how the proposals will be reviewed and the City is always free to refuse all offers.  (This actually happened in the case of 415 W. Washington, where an RFP issued in 2008 attracted relatively few bidders, and none of the proposals met the standards of the Council.)

The history of RFPs, as used by the Ann Arbor City Council to dispose of public land, is rather sad.  The first RFP issued for this purpose in recent history was for affordable housing on the lot recently vacated by the old YMCA (we now know this as the old Y lot).  The logic and history behind that RFP were described in an article for the Ann Arbor Observer (the actual published version was edited for length and content but this is the most complete version).  We told some of the story here of the William Street Station, the project that won the bid but was killed within a week of being finalized.

Another RFP was issued ostensibly to find an appropriate developer for the Library Lot, the former parking lot next to the Ann Arbor District Library.  That story is told here and in many posts about the long struggle over the Valiant proposal to develop a hotel and conference center.  (See the page Library Lot Conference Center for a list of posts.)  Ultimately, the Council terminated the RFP and made no awards. Instead, it directed the DDA to take another look, with the evident intention that there should be a comprehensive downtown planning process.   The beginning of this “look” is told here, and the end was the Connecting William Street project, in which the DDA sought to convince us that every surface lot should be built to its highest possible density.   That report was never taken up by Council, though the Planning Commission, under the leadership of Kirk Westphal, placed the report on a list of “resources”.

With these successes behind it, the Council sought to make things simpler.  Both the Y lot and the Library Lot were simply placed with a broker and put up for sale.  But neither Council nor the Ann Arbor public could quite shake the notion that public land should be sold only with some public benefits attached to the deal.  (We reviewed both the history of the Library Lot and its importance in Ann Arbor’s culture and concept of ourself in our post, Core Space and the Soul of Ann Arbor.) Thus, both of these sales became mired in court cases.

But that is a story for later.

NOTE: The “Council majority” referred to here is the Taylor caucus (the “Powers That Be“) that has existed for some years, in succession to the Hieftje caucus. A minority of Council members (the “Neighborhoods“)  have opposed many of the policy directions and substantive decisions. However, the recent primary has apparently changed those ratios.  See The Primary Struggle for the Future of Ann Arbor for details.

UPDATE:  The fate of our downtown public lands is being hotly debated (October 2018).  The immediate cause is Proposal A on the November ballot, which would reserve the Library Lot for use as a public park. This is in direct contradiction with the intent of Mayor Christopher Taylor and allies to have Core Spaces develop the lot. There is a pending court case regarding some hasty contract signing without the approval of Council, in apparent violation of our Charter.  (Here is an account published by the Ann Arbor News.)

Meanwhile, the fur is flying as both sides present their case for the ballot issue. As this account by the News explains, a group has formed to fight the ballot issue and persuade Ann Arbor citizens not to vote for the proposal. Unfortunately, some of the assertions by this group border (in my view) on untruths and certainly push the boundaries of polite discourse.  Recently Mayor Taylor himself has made an open plea to voters which contains hefty doses of hyperbole.

Mary Hathaway, one of the leading lights for the Library Lot park struggle, has responded with a lengthy letter refuting many of Taylor’s points.  She admonishes him for the negative tone of his message and asks where the cheery positive person that she remembers has gone.  And she addresses directly the financial bind the City Council has made for itself, with both the Y lot and the Library Lot in play, and the evident intent to use proceeds from one sale to pay the expenses of re-acquiring the other.

The stakes are indeed high, both monetarily and in terms of credibility of the Mayor, who recently won re-election over a strong opponent (Jack Eaton) but who also lost many of his Council allies.  The fate of the ballot issue will tell us much about the future direction of Ann Arbor, since it likely breaks down so neatly along the fault lines that divide us.

SECOND UPDATE: (December 2019) Proposal A did indeed pass in August 2018, by 53.11% to 46.89%. The howls from the losers are still being heard. Meanwhile, the agreement to sell the space to the Core Spaces developers was cancelled, and the lawsuit brought by Council members over the hasty contract signing was settled.

Mary Hathaway passed away in October 2019 and is much mourned.

A “Center of the City” task force was appointed and has been deliberating about the future of the Library Lot, in accordance with the voters’ wishes.  An item on the December 16 Council agenda would advance some temporary usage plans for the space.