Sustaining Ann Arbor

Our failures with city neighborhoods, are, ultimately, failures in localized self-government. And our successes are successes with localized self-government. – Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Ann Arbor – Our Home Town

So here we are again, at the brim of an election for Ann Arbor City Council and Mayor. These elections are of much more consequence than they were for most of the time I have lived here, because terms are now four years instead of two, so we have to live with our mistakes much longer. The vote is one of the most important responsibilities we have as citizens.


What do we hope to achieve with our vote for Council and Mayor? Ultimately, we seek to have representatives who will sustain us and present us with a livable community in which to thrive and prosper.  What does it mean to be sustained? That the environment which surrounds us provides us with what we need. “Sustainability” as a concept encompasses economic, environmental and social inputs. Our needs are complex, as is our relationship to our community. There are multiple balances to be achieved. But if our circumstances are not sustainable, we will actually fail. So to be sustained simply means having the supports necessary to continued positive existence so that we and the community as a whole will thrive.

Much of what is being called “sustainable” today actually represents a different concept, that of sustainable development. That refers to more efficiency, with an effort to avoid depletion of vital resources. Also, “sustainable” has become conflated with environmentally sensitive practice or conservation; for example, putting solar cells on one’s roof or using a bicycle for most trips is often termed “sustainable”. But ultimately, a sustainable system is a complex entity requiring multiple inputs for success. That is what we hope for from our community.


What should we expect from our elected representatives? Most of all, we want them to care about us. We don’t want them to be so focused on future plans that they ignore our concerns, whether petty or major. After all, they are our access to local government and to much of our daily lives.

We especially appreciate responsiveness, so that our questions are answered and our concerns are recognized. This does not mean that every wish can be satisfied. The official needs to have a sufficiently broad understanding to make decisions based on their own judgment. But a certain level of municipal service is to be expected, especially if it is a service that the city promises to deliver. This will involve some simple housekeeping (for example, is refuse picked up reliably?) and some overall policy decisions (for example, will we have a service to pick up large items?).

They have to do the “heavy lifting” on our behalf, so there is a need for expertise in a number of technical, legal and administrative areas. They also need to understand finances and be able to judge priorities both from the viewpoint of residents and local businesses and of the city itself.

Our representative will need to have a certain broad vision for the future direction of the city. That might include decisions on whether a certain service will be expanded or eliminated, and, critically, decisions on how the built environment will be treated. Decisions might be needed to address a perceived societal goal, or an anticipated physical or financial challenge. These decisions should not be made only in a “top-down” process, where the electeds and administrators simply tell the populace how it’s going to be. But they also can’t be done in only a “bottom-up” fashion by referendum. The key is meaningful public participation in big decisions.

Critical choices

As indicated in our previous post, there are only a few competitive races for Council. Wards Four and Five have incumbents (Elizabeth Nelson and Ali Ramlawi) (whom we have endorsed) and there is an open seat in the First Ward. We have endorsed Angeline Smith for that seat. Even if all three win election, this will constitute only a minority viewpoint against the Taylor machine. But that is very important. If we are to have good governance and any level of responsiveness to citizen concerns, we need to have a debate about critical decisions and having minority voices will be constructive.

The major race to watch is, of course, the contest for the Mayor. Anne Bannister, whom we have endorsed, appears to have an almost impossible task in opposing Christopher Taylor, whose longevity in office, general influence (his endorsement listing is impressive), and heavy cash advantage would seem insurmountable. But one thing we have learned over the past few years is that predicting the future has gotten tough. We could make a long list of world and national events that no one expected, and there are plenty of local factors to consider too. So while Bannister’s chances might seem slim, every vote still counts and we might be surprised. For one thing, there are starting to be murmurs on social media indicating that Taylor’s popularity is not universal and that there is dissatisfaction with the way events and conditions are developing in Ann Arbor. This letter has gotten fairly wide circulation. Kim Winick is a longtime Burns Park resident and he circulated it as an open letter to members of his neighborhood association. (Reproduced here with permission.) Burns Park is possibly Ann Arbor’s most politically influential neighborhood and is the home of Mayor Christopher Taylor and a long succession of Third Ward Council Members. So it is significant that this letter’s thesis is: the City is not headed in the right direction under the current Mayor, Christopher Taylor, and his supporters on City Council. As befits a dense essay from a retired UM professor, this one includes three pages of text and a page of citations (we did not include those, and the original letter was edited slightly for typographical errors). Here are some significant excerpts.

Christopher Taylor is a strong advocate of zoning changes to promote growth and development in Ann Arbor regardless of potential downsides, while Anne Bannister supports a more cautious approach…One of the principal arguments the disrupter/strivers make in support of up-zoning is that such a policy will make Ann Arbor more affordable. In my opinion, however, up-zoning to fuel housing growth is unlikely to suppress the cost of housing. Thus if the goal of up-zoning is to make housing more affordable it Is very unlikely to achieve this laudable goal. The surge in housing prices, which is a nationwide problem, is due to a multiple of factors and not simply zoning. These factors include great increases in building costs (excluding land costs), substantial increases in wealth inequality, federal government stimulus, fear-of-missing-out and the significant rise in two-person, high-income earning families, who are able to pay higher housing prices. People want to live in Ann Arbor because the town has a highly educated population, good public schools, a vibrant downtown, significant entertainment options, etc., many of which are due to the presence of the University of Michigan. History has shown that significant up-zoning is likely to make Ann Arbor more crowded, with both people and cars, and diminish the town’s features, both architectural and natural, and increasingly make it feel more urban and gentrified, while not lowering housing costs…

I disagree with the extremely pro-growth policy of the City Council majority, led by Christopher Taylor, but I also see that City government is not serving us well in many other respects.

The third page of the letter consists of 9 points, beginning, of course, with the condition of the roads, but ranging over a number of basic services and the dysfunction of Council. Most relevant to the point here is this comment:

New construction is often super-dense, super-expensive, in some cases architecturally unattractive, and provides little to nothing in terms of affordable housing. In some cases, these properties have been up-zoned to permit such construction. Furthermore, these properties often do not provide an environment that makes people want to congregate, socially engage and/or shop in the area. Contrast some of these projects to the splendid area of Kerrytown, which is a model of urban planning.


As we have noted perhaps too many times (see Disruption in Ann Arbor: It’s a Promise), the heavy emphasis on dense development (“densification”) has been a consistent feature of Taylor’s tenure, both as a Council Member and as Mayor. This has accelerated in recent years, as summarized in this overview from MLive. While some developments follow the guidelines in the Comprehensive Plan, others have required special allowances and modified site plans.

Rendering of the 19-story building to be built behind the Michigan Theater, next to the old Liberty Square parking structure on the right

The culture of Ann Arbor has not always been so accepting of dense, tall development. As I described in an early article (2005) published in the Ann Arbor Observer, the fate of development downtown was intensely debated. But by 2010, the rezoning of downtown Ann Arbor was completely accomplished, via a process called Ann Arbor Discovering Downtown (A2D2). Since then, and especially when Christopher Taylor had a majority of his supporters on Council, downtown has been growing taller and taller. This was facilitated by generous height premiums for residential buildings. Perhaps the ultimate example is the building now underway behind the Michigan Theater. It will be 19 stories, according to the Ann Arbor News the tallest building in 50 years But as pointed out in the Ann Arbor Observer, with changes in the height premiums offered to require more affordable units, this era may be coming to an end. Still, the look and feel of our city has unalterably changed, as was well described in this article: Ann Arbor’s Small-town look fading as Downtown Reaches for the Sky.

Not all of downtown is available for this push to the sky. With Main Street and State Street historic districts, some of the precious land will stay at human scale for the time being. More recently, the effort has been to grow “downtowns” elsewhere by the simple expedient of rezoning parts of the city to accept less onerous height and density restrictions. The development site formerly known as Broadway Village was zoned as a PUD over a decade ago, but rezoned at the request of the current owner to C1(A/R), in a vote much criticized by Lowertown neighbors. As described in this review by the Ann Arbor News, till now this has been the most flexible or generous zoning classification. But the new TC-1 zoning, recently applied to the area around Briarwood, offers “downtown-style development” away from downtown.

This rush to development has been justified by the premise that more residential development (increase in housing units) of any kind will make housing more affordable in Ann Arbor. As Taylor was quoted in the discussion about TC-1 zoning,

“I’m very excited about this step we’re taking today…Supply and demand is not a joke, it’s the law, and what we are doing is we are enabling the market to create substantially more — thousands perhaps more — units of housing in the city of Ann Arbor to house future neighbors.”

While in the past, more permissive zoning like that granted in PUDs or the more recent affordable housing premiums for downtown have been tied to developer concessions and donations of “community benefits” like affordable housing funding and parks support, the tide has turned against any impediment to development. In the TC-1 discussion, some CM lamented the lack of requirements for a move toward carbon neutrality in accordance with the A2Zero plan approved by Council. But the no-benefits coalition won the day.

“Council has heard many people call for making developers propose fully electric buildings or include affordable housing in order to get approval for taller buildings, but requiring that could make projects more difficult and more expensive, (CM Lisa) Disch said, expressing concerns it could disincentive development.”


Cui bono?

So who benefits from all this development and the resulting growth? Obviously, the developers, who do this work to make a profit. Property owners make a sale, realtors and agents collect fees, many workers in construction trades, suppliers of building materials, construction managers, architects, survey companies find work. Taxing authorities acquire a higher tax base. And yes, politicians who support these policies are in turn supported by campaign donations. (We are not alleging corruption here. Individuals donate to candidates who support their goals, all open and aboveboard.) Growth of the GDP for a locality in general benefits many who do business in it.

But who benefits from the resulting density? That is a different question. There is a new urban science (beyond “emergent” and now well established) that seeks to define cities as entities that operate within the scientific/mathematical concept of complexity. One of the foremost practioners is Luis M.A. Bettencourt, author of the definitive textbook Introduction to Urban Science; Evidence and Theory of Cities as Complex Systems. For years, he and his colleagues have been conducting empirical work, collecting data of many types from cities globally, and constructing models and mathematical representations that reveal the many similarities in how cities are organized and grow. And when we say “grow”, we mean as an organism grows. This is a feature of complex systems. Bettencourt’s introduction says:

This emphasis on the connections between many different aspects of cities —  their built space and land uses, their infrastructure and services, their social life and its outcomes — is the business of complex systems as a relatively new field of scientific inquiry…The integration of ideas and concepts from many disciplines also forces each piece to shift and change as it is constrained and enabled by others into new frameworks.

Some of the key qualities that define cities in this science (and it requires a book to explain them) are property of scaling, presence of networks, energy flows, diversity and neighborhoods. Social aspects are very important in whether a city will be a success (in the sense of serving its populations and attaining longevity).  Michael Batty, whose recent book, Inventing Future Cities, is a philosophical but cogent overview of the science, quotes an earlier author, Lewis Mumford (What is a City).

The city in its complete sense, then, is a geographic plexus, and economic organization, an institutional process, a theater of social action, and an aesthetic symbol of collective unity. The city fosters art and is art; the city creates the theater and is the theater.

So the takeaway is that the city is about its people and their interactions. The more dense the city, the greater frequency of interactions. There are numerous studies showing linear relationships between population and many other outcomes. For some activities, the relation is superlinear (increases more rapidly than merely proportionately). There are hundreds of datasets recorded by numerous authors mapping these relationships. Here is one (Source: Yang et al., Phys. Rev. E 100, 032306). Several relationships are superlinear but one is merely linear.

Because the number of interactions increases with the population, there are numerous outcomes, both positive and negative. We are all familiar with the congestion that comes with increased population density. More people means more cars on the road, more crowds on sidewalks, less room in public facilities. It also means more demands on public resources such as water utilities. But more people also means more business interactions, better availability of some services (transit, for example). Of special interest to the technology culture is the result of intense collaboration (note the increase in patents submitted in the figure).

The question of the impact of density has been studied by many, using historical examples and also collecting contemporary data. Here is a simplified diagram illustrating an overview.

Note that net social benefit increases linearly with density of social interactions until an optimum is reached, then benefit declines until system becomes unstable.

The conclusion from this could be simply stated that growth is beneficial to success of the city, but only to a certain point, and after that is deleterious. How could we predict what this point is for Ann Arbor? There must be metrics that could be considered.


Ann Arbor’s discussion of the current rapid moves in unzoning much of the City has been severely limited, especially as to prediction of likely outcomes. Planning is supposed to indicate the direction that policies we put in place will take us. There is supposed to be some sort of consensus within the community about the outcomes. Typically a comprehensive plan begins with a “vision statement” that serves as a grounding for actions within the plan. Actual implementation is supposed to reflect those outcomes and mechanisms should be in place to achieve them. Here is the vision statement for our last comprehensive plan (n.b., the actual document is called a “Master Plan”, but some members of our community find that to be offensive, so most plans are now referred to as a “Comprehensive Plan” instead. It still means that the Plan is supposed to serve as a template for planning).

“The City of Ann Arbor will be a dynamic community, providing a safe and healthy place to live, work and recreate. It will be a place where planning decisions are based, in part, on the interconnectedness of natural, transportation and land use systems. Natural systems, including air and water, natural features, native flora and wildlife habitats, will be improved and protected. It will be a place where the Huron River is a cherished part of the community and a focal point for recreation. Downtown will continue to be a vibrant part of the community that ties all parts of the city together. Transportation systems will include enhanced opportunities for public transit, extensive opportunities for alternative modes of travel and improved management techniques to reduce the impact of traffic on existing streets and neighborhoods. Land use systems will be compatible and complementary, and will include residential, recreational, commercial, office, educational, institutional and industrial uses, which will provide extensive choices in housing (including low cost housing), shopping, employment and recreational activities. Historically significant buildings and neighborhoods will be preserved. The quality of life in Ann Arbor will be characterized by its diversity, beauty, vibrancy and livability and ultimately will depend upon the positive interaction of these systems.”

It sometimes seems that our only “vision” now is to utilize every square inch possible for residential development, achieving density both by increasing the building envelope footprint (reduction of setbacks) and increased height, and definitely by increasing the number of units per acre. Single-family zoning is under attack, and now (with the TC-1 zoning proposal for W. Stadium) one of our principal commercial service areas is under threat of being directed into a monoculture of tall residential buildings with no real commercial presence. There have been vigorous protests from many sectors of the local neighborhoods but it is uncertain how Taylor’s Planning Commission and his solid Council majority will heed those. What is at risk is a major commercial and service area that serves much of the West Side of Ann Arbor. Are those residents to be ignored?

The premise for the current set of transformative policies has not been explained, except in the most simplistic form. To repeat (again and again) that increase in supply of housing units will eventually, inevitably, result in affordable housing. As Taylor said in the statement already quoted here, “Supply and demand is the law”. (Presumably he means a natural law.) But there is ample reason to contest that conclusion (it will have to be in another post). And the notion has been advanced that anyone who wants to live in Ann Arbor should be able to find housing here. But that suggests that Ann Arbor is infinitely expansible. Is it growth for its own sake? To attain some social goal? (Sometimes the suggestion is made that this will advance racial equity, but the mechanism is unclear.) Does Ann Arbor have limits, other than the obvious one of our fixed border? What are the limits of density before the city becomes unlivable or even dysfunctional?

I wondered whether our Planning Department was working from a model that had not been explained. So I asked our Planning Director, Brett Lenart, if there were such a model (I didn’t want to put him in a compromising position, so I copied the email to the City Administrator). Here was his answer.

As for mathematical models for City development, the Economic Equity and Affordability Analysis performed by the County in 2015 modeled the needs of affordable housing units in the City, and other communities. The City’s current Comprehensive planning documents reference densities in some areas specifically, and in other indirect ways, lead toward density when discussing outcomes such as increased transit mode use, which becomes more possible with increased densities, though not always defined in City planning documents as a specific number.

Another strong policy statement and justification for many changes in configuration of the City, including transportation, is the A2Zero plan. A good deal of the City Budget is aimed at fulfilling this plan. And we have also been informed that there will be a request on the November ballot for a 1.0 mill tax to support these aims. Taylor has been clear that this is a major thrust of his. It is hard to argue with climate change.

Kian Goh, in her book Form and Flow, asks, “In the face of climate change and uneven social and spatial urban development, how are contesting visions of urban futures produced and how do they attain power?” She examines three case studies of urban areas facing issues from climate change. They are New York City, Rotterdam, and Jakarta. In each, “insurgent” community groups rose up to challenge institutional solutions. Her thesis, based in “urban ecology”, is that top-down approaches from “hegemonic” powers are being contested by grassroots community groups, and it is clear where her sympathy lies – and it is not with those engaged in “modernist urban planning”.

“…one aspect remains constant among those in power. There is a strong…belief that there are urban development solutions to climate change problems, if done properly…But how can this be the case when it is those same systems of urban development that created, and continue to perpetuate, those problems?”

Really, in the current efforts by Taylor and his supporters to transform not just the form but the complex and diverse social character of Ann Arbor, one is reminded of the 1950s urban renewal wave that forever displaced and marred neighborhoods in the United States (Ann Arbor, miraculously, escaped). The tools they are using include the threat of climate change, but A2Zero, if examined closely, is simply a framework and defense of growth.

Will a grassroots group of current residents continue to have a voice on our City Council? Will our community as a whole thrive or will density undermine our quality of life? Will Ann Arbor retain the complex and engaging character that has charmed so many, or will current neighborhoods be transformed and residents displaced in favor of creating wealth and a new reality?  The election on Tuesday, August 2 will provide some important answers.

UPDATE: Money won the day. The grassroots coalition took solid losses and it looks as though the Taylor machine will have firm control over the City of Ann Arbor. Early reports here.

Explore posts in the same categories: politics, Sustainability

5 Comments on “Sustaining Ann Arbor”

  1. Robert Frank Says:

    Many, perhaps most of city residents want to live in a “livable” small city. Not in a bourgeoning metropolis. We don’t want to be like ants, living cheek to jowl. Green space should not be only at parks. Density will only compound current problems. This week city council will decide to reduce the permissible size of R2A lots to 2500 sf for the lot size. That’s the size of many relatively modest current homes. And that’s the whole lot. R2A is not designed for such dense housing. This is not NYC.

  2. Susan Donnelly Says:

    My writing will not be as eloquent as yours, but I will hopefully get my point across. I appreciate your alternate and honest viewpoint about the state of Ann Arbor.
    In my lifetime Ann Arbor has already become a very different city, the building of “the mall” being the major turning point in my opinion. Downtown is no longer a retail/shopping area, hardly kid friendly and not nearly as thriving as it was. The current shopping is trendy boutiques that suit the upper-class, tourists and those in town for UofM sporting events. When I am on Main St. during a weekday I am a bit shocked by the lack of people walking and shopping. The fact that many of the shops don’t open until 11AM probably doesn’t contribute to a “thriving downtown”.

    Most of the people I grew up with, family members included, no longer live here. You’d be hard pressed to find people who are “from” Ann Arbor (born here etc.) My grandparents came here in the 1930’s because of the university and my family has been here ever since. Now, I’m the only one left in the city. Change is good but not all change is beneficial. Ann Arbor is changing into something else entirely unrecognizable, so different that it will no longer be the place that many people moved here for in the first place.

    • That makes me sad. I am a relative newcomer (not quite 40 years) but for people whose families are rooted here, it must be hard.

      • Drew conlin Says:

        It is hard. My sister lives in the house I grew up in; my Dad and his many brothers and sisters as were my brother and sister all baptized at St Thomas going back over 100 years.
        The disrespect and the dismissiveness from the new educated mostly white transplanted elite … it’s like my friend said we attracted the wrong kind of new people to tree town

      • Mark M. Koroi Says:

        Remember that the City of Ann Arbor duringthe first half of the century – all the way until at least 1960 voted heavily Republican and there was a substantial German-American population.
        In the 1960s, the counterculture was born in Ann Arbor and suddenly radicals and progressives from all over the U.S. came to Tree Town and gradually they took over. A2 since that time has been a magnet for radicals – creating Hash Bash, Punk Week and a general haven for political left wingers, LGBT activists, homeless, and other radical fringe groups.
        Contrast 1960 Ann Arbor to today and it is unquestionably different – Republicans are no longer elected to City Council and the large German-American population – which had been mostly political conservative – had dispersed outside the city.

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