Disruption in Ann Arbor: It’s a Promise. (1)

A two-part examination of the driving force behind this August’s primary election

The Election

It’s that season again. As all those who have lived in Ann Arbor for some years must be aware, we go through this stressful exercise every time there is a City Council election. Now that Council terms are for four years instead of two, elections are only in even years, so at least we get a little bit of a break. Because we still have partisan elections (thanks to a mayoral veto of a referendum to ask the voters which they prefer), the important election is held as the Democratic primary. And our ballots still allow for straight-line party votes, so many voters don’t even bother to get down to the bottom of the ballot in the  November general election. Thus, the only real vote for our Council members will be on August 4, 2020.

Mayor Christopher Taylor, February 18, 2020

The dominant figure in this election is someone who is not on the ballot. Christopher Taylor has been our Mayor since 2014, when John Hieftje (whose agenda he has emulated) retired as Mayor after a long successful tenure. Taylor was re-elected to a four-year term in 2018. But he has had a struggle. Though Hieftje maintained a solid majority of his supporters on Council, the numbers were starting to decay. There were continual efforts by dissenters to win places on Council, and by 2014 they were making headway. By November 2014, six Council Members who were not reliable Taylor votes were seated (though they differed on many specific issues and did not vote as a block). (There are 10 CM, plus the Mayor, a total of 11.) They were Sumi Kailaspathy, Sabra Briere, Jane Lumm, Stephen Kunselman, Jack Eaton, and Mike Anglin. Since the number of CM required to pass a resolution is 6 votes, but many other actions by Council require 7 or 8 votes, this presented something of an impasse and a barrier to very many really ground-breaking initiatives.

In 2015, the balance shifted, with Zachary Ackerman replacing Kunselman, and Chip Smith replacing Anglin. Thus the “insurgents” were reduced to 4 votes, which still gave them some power when 8 votes was required, but little ability to defeat most issues. When Sabra Briere left town and Jason Frenzel was appointed in her place, Taylor finally had the desired “supermajority” of 8 votes.  In 2017, Anne Bannister ousted Frenzel, so that we were back to the armed standoff for big items. Finally, in 2018, tables got turned again, so that a new majority of insurgents have an almost decisive 7 votes. Again, the not-Taylors are not a unanimous bloc and there are often dissenters on particular issues. But Bannister, Hayner, Lumm, Griswold, Eaton, Nelson, and Ramlawi often oppose major actions by Taylor.

These elections take on a bit of Groundhog Day vibe since we always seem to be arguing about the same things. In a recent amazingly even-handed discussion of our local politics, Sam Firke identified two Ann Arbor political factions, Protector and Striver.  Protectors: “They love Ann Arbor, have deep roots in the community, and want to preserve its goodness.” He mentions tall buildings, among other things. Strivers: “They want to keep growing the things that make it so special. They are also more likely to see the ways in which Ann Arbor can do better. ” He accurately identifies me as one of the Protector clan. (I’ve given our two groups a number of different names over the years, but these are better.) Taylor is, of course, the leading figure for the Strivers. The not-Taylors on Council represent the Protectors.

But Firke misses the essential difference. Protectors represent the residents, especially the longer-term residents, of Ann Arbor. Strivers seem to be envisioning a new, improved set. We highlighted this years ago with The Placemaking Agenda and Ann Arbor Politics. It was all about “talent”. But the themes keep changing, with the fashions.  Each new theme comes back to the same thing: more development within the City of Ann Arbor. And its current residents are, simply, in the way.

Taylor’s Slate. From left: Lisa Disch, Jen Eyer, Erica Briggs, Linh Song. Travis Radina not shown.

Given the rocky ride he has had, it can be understood if Taylor is getting rather frustrated. Once the sunny smiling charm purveyor, he has gotten openly combative, with more and more emphasis on his slate winning. He has actively recruited and endorsed candidates for the last several elections. This year he has assembled a slate of substantial candidates, who have accepted the assignment cheerfully, even wearing T-shirts with all five names on them (Lisa Disch, Ward 1; Linh Song, Ward 2; Travis Radina, Ward 3; Jen Eyer, Ward 4; Erica Briggs, Ward 5), and all pretty much singing from the same hymnbook. None are incumbents.

Recently he sent an email to supporters with his endorsement for the Slate and outlined their platforms.In this, he explicitly condemns the incumbents in three wards (Anne Bannister (Ward 1); Jane Lumm, Ward 2; Jack Eaton, Ward 4) with a set of misleading and inaccurate characterizations.  I will not attempt to discuss these at length, but there is some discussion of them in this MLive article. There is an increasingly desperate tone to Taylor’s statements, and those of his supporters. It is dispiriting to see the Mayor of a city like Ann Arbor, which has one of the highest proportions of well-educated people in the nation and is the home of an internationally respected University of Michigan, engage in such deceptive and inflammatory rhetoric as he has in recent messages. What is driving this desperation? We can give him the benefit of the doubt, that he sincerely believes in the ideals he espouses, but that should not prompt this type of behavior.


Lately Taylor has introduced a rather fearsome theme: disruption. He has been preaching this for quite a few months now. Here is an excerpt of his comments on February 18, 2020. He was discussing the affordable housing pledge the Council had just unanimously endorsed.

Putting this pledge into effect will require disruption. Disruption is not something we do terribly well in Ann Arbor. Business as usual will not be acceptable. Things are going to have to be different. … It means that density is something we need to countenance in areas where it has previously not been acceptable.

Prior to the vote for the expansive A2Zero plan (finally passed on June 1, 2020), Taylor again promised disruption.  The Plan explicitly called for zoning changes to allow  denser development in currently single-family zoned areas. That language was slightly modified in later drafts. But attention was drawn early on to the cost of the Plan (said to be $1 Billion over 10 years) and then the hit on the city budget from the COVID-19 pandemic. Taylor was defiant and once again promised disruption (from the Michigan Daily).

“Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor said the plan will be disruptive…Ann Arbor 2030 will be materially different than Ann Arbor 2020… It’ll be a denser community, a more electrified community, a community that emphasizes renewable energy.”

The message is very clear. No more business as usual. A different community. And most of all, more density. Whether we like it or not. As Taylor has experienced more and more barriers to his direction-setting for the City of Ann Arbor, he has grown more and more shrill. And the key factor appears to be density. Why is that?

Next: Density and Development.

Note about comments: I welcome comments that address the topic of the post. This is not the place to send me a message. If you want to communicate, please send a message to localinannarbor@gmail.com.

I do moderate comments and will not accept those that are overly long and discursive or which require debate about my personal history. This is not a social media forum. It is not necessary to agree with me but I do require that you are respectful. Please follow the guidelines about using your name and supplying an email.

Thank you for reading.


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9 Comments on “Disruption in Ann Arbor: It’s a Promise. (1)”

  1. h6davis Says:

    I’ve seen this multiple times in these faction discussions – the assertion that the Protectors represent the residents of Ann Arbor, which in turn implies that the Strivers don’t. I guess I’d just like to speak up as one of those residents (I’ve lived here – rented, because I can’t afford to buy anywhere near the city – for 7 years now, and I’m not in the tech industry) who do not feel represented by any of the Protectors on the council. To be fair I don’t think many of the Strivers have done a great job representing me either, but they’ve at least made motions that I can support, and their platform doesn’t seem to favor homeowners and cars above all else.

    I’m a resident, as I said. But in a month I won’t be within Ann Arbor city limits anymore. I’ve been priced out, to put it simply. There just are not any affordable places for me to live within the city, certainly not on a service worker’s pay, and the idea of me living anywhere within walking distance to downtown is now laughable. And in the meantime the council has taken *no* action to address the conditions that have brought this situation into being. No comprehensive looks at zoning (and heaven forbid anyone mention opening up single-family-only zones at all – the response each time is as if the proposal were to immediately tear down your family estate and build a skyscraper in its place), no rent control, no local minimum wage, almost no developments of any kind approved. Everyone on the council, as far as I can tell, agrees that affordable housing is a need, and despite this, we – the *residents* of this city – get nothing, unless we already have a house.

    So I tell you, I’m not feeling very protected right now. And a post like this doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence that that’s going to change. So I guess I’ll cast my vote in August and hope one day I can move back.

  2. Yes, you have highlighted the dilemma. I hope that you will read the second part of this post (I had to break it up, as it was getting too long for any human to read in one setting). It will be posted later today. It discusses points relevant to your comment.

    Just some notes: we have a confusion of terminology in what constitutes “affordable” housing. I suspect that you would fall into what is commonly called “workforce” housing – something affordable to a person whose working income is below the median income, but too high to qualify for government subsidy. I agree that we have not found a way to address that need and it is a question I have been raising for some time (mostly in conversation, since I haven’t been in a position to pass anything). This is a question that rightly belongs in an overall master plan discussion, which we won’t be having for some time.

    Also, FYI, the City has no power to enact either a minimum wage or rent control. Those are both reserved to the state. (Rent control is illegal in Michigan.) And we (the City) have approved many, many developments. They are just at a market rate, which means too expensive.

  3. Marlin Whitaker Says:

    Although I share a household with a spouse who was born and raised in Ann Arbor, I have personally only lived here for about 15 years. Perhaps that means that my roots are not deep enough for my opinions to be taken seriously by the Protectors, but I claim a citizen’s right to a voice. I don’t fear change. In fact, I welcome more city residents and other kinds of progress supported by the Strivers. In these times, at least some — and maybe a lot of — disruption is just what is called for.

    • Yes, of course your opinions matter. This is democracy. What we are discussing is our vision of Ann Arbor and how we want to live. Every resident’s voice counts and you can rightfully plan to vote accordingly.

      I want to be sure that everyone understands what these policies mean. But your views are your own.

  4. Thanks so much for your post! I never predict, just hope.

  5. Erica Briggs Says:

    Vivienne, since we know each other, it might have been nice to reach out to me for a comment for this blog post. Mayor Taylor did not recruit me. I have been working hard for our community for 15 years and it seemed like the right time to step forward. I appreciate his support and I appreciate that there are a number of qualified candidates running, but we are individuals. I did not know any of the personally before last fall. We have mutual supporters, some quite enthusiastic, that have made graphics and t-shirts, but we have not done this.

    I also appreciate that Mayor Taylor has used the word disruption. His job as Mayor is to help to set expectations for what lies ahead. Addressing serious problems (the climate crisis and our affordability crisis) requires us to accept that some change is necessary (sometimes significant changes from past practices) and this can feel disruptive. But if we do nothing, we will continue on a path that is unacceptable. The status quo leads to poorer outcomes for our community, particularly the most vulnerable in our community. There are videos with sinister music circulating suggesting that disruption is akin to destroying our neighborhoods.These are scare tactics. The pressures on our community, on our planet, to change are often powerful external forces. It is incumbent upon us to work together to find strategies that allow us to feel secure that we are consistently delivering on our values (diversity, inclusion, environmental stewardship). But if we try to keep A2 in a time capsule, I worry we will end up in a Twilight Zone episode where the streets/houses look the same, but we are no longer a community we recognize.

    • Hi, Erica. Like it or not, you are a member of the Slate. I have been careful not to point at you personally, but you are riding the same wave and can be expected to vote with them. I’ve been following your opinions and policy statements for years and I know that you are highly critical of the policies and vision that I favor. You are a good person and I believe you will always behave in a highly ethical manner. Unfortunately, you can also be expected to follow Mayor Taylor and his direction, and he has revealed a great deal about his character lately that is disquieting at best.

      As to the videos and comments by others, I am not involved in them, though I confess to having shared the video (it was striking) at one point. You can take all that as an indication that there are strong feelings about the direction of our city on both sides. Regardless of who wins, I am sure you will do the best for us according to your views. Best wishes to you and yours.

  6. Jean Henry Says:

    Yes to more neighbors, more diversity of people and home prices. Yes to more density. It doesn’t scare me one bit. Ann Arbor has changed despite the protectors constant efforts to curb growth and housing development. The protectors have failed to prevent housing price escalation. They have presented NO affordable housing solution. Their desire to cast Ann Arbor in amber has turned a city I love into a homogenous enclave for the wealthy with workers needing to travel long distances, mostly by car, to their jobs.

    They have not helped Ann Arbor stay the same. That’s not possible. The 2 year master planning process is about to be underway. In it we can envision a positive future for our city, which will never be and has never been one of unchecked growth. We have a chance now to positively direct the future of our city to match our community values of diversity, inclusion, economic and cultural vitality AND fair housing costs.

    In the post war period through the 70’s this city doubled in population. And that’s the time when most of the protectors moved here. Their entry into this community was afforded by the previous generation’s openness to growth. And they dramatically changed this city. For the better. Now they want to preserve what they made– an impulse I understand. It’s just not possible given the job center that A2 has become due to UM and tech industry growth.

    We simply must embrace the reality of change and begin to direct it rather than being subject to it despite resistance.

    This moment demands climate and social justice action, not resistance to change. The people are taking to the streets demanding reform. That’s the ‘disruption’ of which Mayor Taylor speaks. Bring it on.

    • Your position is well stated. However, I quibble. Ann Arbor is not “a homogeneous enclave for the wealthy”. Many parts of the city are inhabited by people of low to moderate income. I have published the Census map showing this a couple of times. The City is the fourth lowest median income community in the County, after Augusta and Ypsilanti Townships and Ypsilanti City. There are many modest houses on the West Side and elsewhere that are occupied by people on fixed incomes who just manage to make that tax payment every year. And happily many people live on a bus line or within biking distance, in fact that is one of the attractions of the core neighborhoods.

      The City doubled in population in large part through annexations. This is a story worth telling and I hope to some day. Many of our neighborhoods were annexed after development. A good way to detect this is the lack of sidewalks. It was less an “openness to growth” and more the expansion of a metropolitan center that was stopped by the Boundary Commission establishment (1970). The Boundary Commission was founded in what might be called the Revolt of the Townships and it stopped most of our expansion and growth.

      One factor that has obscured the true nature of the current city is the increase in land value. Many people are living on parcels that have much more value than the current house itself. I discuss that in the next post. But that does not make them wealthy.

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