The Fog of Plans (II)

We complained earlier about “the fog of plans”, resulting from too many high-level planning initiatives in Ann Arbor.  Some of these have moved along. As reported by the Ann Arbor Chronicle, the A2D2 zoning ordinance came up for a final vote and passed on November 16 (see also the Chronicle’s story on the council caucus for a very useful chronology; link to Ann Arbor City website with ordinance revisions.)  As also detailed by the Chronicle, speakers at the caucus and public comment on November 16 entreated the council to revise and pass the accompanying design guidelines, but to no avail.  (It is estimated that revised design guidelines will require 8-12 months more work.) But Council voted on December 7 to send the Area, Height and Placement study back to the Planning Commission for consideration of possible changes to reflect public comment during the summer.

The consolidated master plan (aka “City of Ann Arbor Master Plan Land Use Element”) about which we objected strenuously in the previous post was passed without dissent on November 5. But now the effort to remake completely the entire planning and zoning context of the city continues.  According to Jayne Miller, the director of Community Services,  the Phase 2 Master Plan revision is currently scheduled to begin January 2010.  Remember, the point of a consolidated master plan was to make it easier to revise?  And to help that along, the Zoning Ordinance Reorganization project launched with several presentations in December. The ZORO outline makes the agenda chillingly clear.

The City is undertaking a multi-phase initiative to consolidate and then update its land use plans
and codes.

1. First, the four area master plans have been consolidated into a single master plan, making future revisions easier.
2. Second, the zoning ordinance and other development-related ordinances will be reviewed for technical changes to improve clarity, organization, and user-friendliness, setting the stage for future amendments.
3. Third, the master plan land use element will be reviewed for relevancy and appropriateness of future land use recommendations and planning principles.
4. Fourth, and finally, the zoning and development-related ordinances will be reviewed for substantive changes to standards and regulations to reflect and implement the revised master plan land use element.

This initiative brings up several questions.  Who “ordered” all this re-examination of our planning context?  There is a clear vision here.  Whose? And what is it?  There are some indications, as we will be speculating.  But here is my diagnosis as to the intent and motivations.  (I’ll have to justify my conclusions over many posts.)

    1. The intent is to bring the master plans and zoning ordinances of the city into concurrence with the land use recommendations of the Ann Arbor Transportation Plan Update.
    2. The AATPU fulfills the vision of Mayor John Hieftje’s Model for Mobility and promotes the concept of Transit-Oriented Development.
    3. This forecasts a much higher city population in a much denser city.
    4. It also supports the business of development.

      But the purpose of planning and zoning is supposed to be that it enhances the quality of life for the city in accordance with community wishes. As we said earlier, the classic model is that planners spend months working with a citizen-based committee to update a master plan, with plenty of public input, so that it captures as best as possible the wishes of the community for how it will look in the future.  This is called the “vision”.  The planners then put their skills to work fleshing out that vision in workable form.

      But we have turned this model on its head.  Instead, we have a driving vision that is being fleshed out by all the technical assistance that it needs – and the public is being instructed in it after the fact. And this constant pressure is wearing on the citizens who care about the city’s future. The vision many of us share is that of the city as a neighborhood-friendly place that offers a good quality of life to its residents and a real sense of local community.   Here is the way I stated it in a campaign flyer last year.

      We live in a lovely town, with green spaces and parks, historic buildiings and attractive neighborhoods.  This is home because of the community we have created here.  That sense of community is rooted in our neighborhoods as well as in the networks of interest and affiliation we create around issues like social equity, environmental stewardship, affordable housing, and the arts.  Locally owned businesses add to our sense of place and community by offering services with a human face.

      The complexity and scope of the many kinds of changes now being considered require real study, and responding to them requires a great deal of time.  It means noting possible consequences of individual items or the plan as a whole, preparing careful responses, and communicating with Planning Commission, staff, and council, as well as appearing at public meetings, public hearings, and public comment (which requires signing up).  If that last sentence sounds whiny, it is not on my behalf that I say it, but in awe and admiration for the many Ann Arbor citizens who have stepped up to this task.  For example, a large committee (with the able facilitation of Ray Detter),  recently spent many evenings going over the draft design guidelines word by word, finally presenting council with a fully marked-up draft.

      I was also particularly impressed with the statements that Hugh Sonk, the president of the Sloan Plaza Condominium Association, presented to council.  He was asking that the north side of Huron be zoned D2 instead of D1. His statements combined careful technical detail (such as discussion of building heights, other buildings along the corridor, traffic considerations, etc.) with heartfelt expressions of love for the city.  I’ve attached one in its entirety but here are a couple of quotes from it that I found particularly moving. First, he noted the strong attachment that both long-term residents and many UM alumni have for the city, and says, “There is a broad community concern that the character of this town is in jeopardy, and steps must be taken soon to prevent irreversible damage to the town we love.”  Then,

      At Sloan Plaza we were the pioneers of downtown living, having lived here for 24 years. We respectfully request that Council take serious consideration of the long-term negative impact of excessive building heights on the quality of life downtown, and pay close attention to the recommended density limits of the Calthorpe Report, and temper those in reaction to recent construction by the University. Calthorpe was the one participant that had no vested interest in the outcome of the study. Somewhere during the implementation of the study, some of the key points and goals were lost, and the wishes of developers have overridden the recommendations of consultants, and the will of the people.

      Unfortunately, after many hours of discussion, the council passed the A2D2 zoning ordinance with the D1 designation for north Huron intact.

      In the next post we’ll discuss the ZORO project.

      Explore posts in the same categories: Neighborhoods, Sustainability

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