Archive for the ‘Basis’ category

Core Spaces and The Soul of Ann Arbor

April 16, 2017

It seems to have gone on forever.  But really, only for about a decade.  Now here we are, once again deciding on the fate of the Library Lot – that small precious piece of real estate next to the Ann Arbor District Library.

Rendering of proposed Core Spaces building as proposed to Council.

The Ann Arbor City Council will vote on this resolution on April 17, 2017.   It either will or will not award development rights for the Library Lot (retaining ownership of the actual land) to Core Spaces, which describes itself as “a full‐service real estate development, acquisition and management company”, and further identifies its target markets as “educational”, in other words, student-oriented.  The result will be a 17-story building, bigger than anything we could have imagined 10 years ago.

Feelings are running high and the volume of email to Council must be stupendous.  Just to make the drama more intense, because the resolution disposes of city property, it requires 8 of 11 Council votes (counting the Mayor).  Three CM have made their dislike fairly public (Eaton, Kailasapathy, Lumm).  So each one of the remaining 8 can be the one to make or break the deal.  It is generally understood that Mayor Taylor favors it.  Are all the rest committed to support it, in the face of a great deal of public opposition?  Some, especially those who are new to Council or up for re-election, are likely feeling the heat.

Why is this so important to so many?  Its importance (as measured by heat and light generated) is far more than most tall building development projects downtown.  There are many facets to the issue.  But most of all, this decision is symbolic about the direction that Ann Arbor is headed.  In many ways, it is a battle for the soul of Ann Arbor.

What Do We Want To Be?

This article from the Ann Arbor Observer (2005) outlined many issues and described the Calthorpe public process. (Click for link.)

The battle for the future of Ann Arbor has been the underpinning of our politics for over 10 years. One could argue that it began with the election of John Hieftje as Mayor in 2000, or the renewal of the DDA Charter in 2003.  That launched an emphasis on downtown development that has changed not only the appearance of Ann Arbor’s downtown, but its perceived purpose and use. There was also a shift in the objectives for the city as a whole.  We have often thought our city to be rather special, in a community-supportive, casually fun but also fairly intellectual, colorful but not in an overly contrived sort of way. See our post, What Does it Mean to be an Ann Arbor Townie. In other words, a city to serve its citizens and welcome visitors on our own terms.  But in recent years, a new agenda has been espoused by the majority on our City Council.  This is spelled out at length in The Placemaking Agenda and Ann Arbor Politics. Briefly, it is to transform the city into a cradle of entrepreneurship and enterprise, especially by attracting “talent” (young people who can start or sustain high-tech enterprises).  Much of this is based on the concept of the “Creative Class”, as described by the urbanist Richard Florida in his 2002 book.

One could argue that Ann Arbor is doing very well and is succeeding in this talent-seeking strategy.  We are listed over and over again on national lists as in the top 10 for various qualities.  Maps showing economic success usually show our Washtenaw County as standing out.  But interestingly, Richard Florida himself has had something of a change of heart. Florida’s recent book, The New Urban Crisis, recognizes that the type of “success” we have enjoyed has come with a cost to whole swaths of demographics.  As he says in a recent article,

 As techies, professionals, and the rich flowed back into urban cores, the less advantaged members of the working and service classes, as well as some artists and musicians, were being priced out….I found myself confronting the dark side of the urban revival I had once championed and celebrated…As the middle class and its neighborhoods fade, our geography is splintering into small areas of affluence and concentrated advantage, and much larger areas of poverty and concentrated disadvantage.

And a summary from another article :

America today is beset by a New Urban Crisis. If the old urban crisis was defined by the flight of business, jobs, and the middle class to the suburbs, the New Urban Crisis is defined by the back-to-the-city movement of the affluent and the educated—accompanied by rising inequality, deepening economic segregation, and increasingly unaffordable housing.

Sure enough, a graphic from the article shows that Ann Arbor is #11 on his “Urban Crisis Index”.  Do increasing economic inequality, loss of affordability in housing, and racial/class segregation sound familiar?  Washtenaw County paid good money a couple of years ago for a consultant to tell us this about ourselves.  So, Ann Arbor is succeeding as a business proposition.  Is it losing what makes it successful as a place to live?  As a community in the whole?

(Florida will be keynoting this year’s SPARK meeting on April 24.  It’ll be interesting to hear what he says about our local situation.)

The Importance of the Library Lot

So what does the Library Lot have to do with all this? Because the Library Lot belongs to the entire City of Ann Arbor, and thus presumably its public, and because the project is so wildly out of scale with the downtown historic districts that supposedly make our downtown successful, not to mention the residential neighborhood immediately to the south, and because while this is a public asset, the benefit to the Ann Arbor public has not evidently been a consideration. (No public process has been employed to arrive at this use.) For all these reasons, the debate has been more passionate than for other downtown projects.  The Ann Arbor public continue to assert ownership.  For that reason, it stands as a symbol of the decisions to be made about our downtown, and thus our city.

But many other interests have eyed this choice little bit of real estate for particular ends.  The DDA has had a single-minded intent to increase the magnitude of development in the downtown, generally.  A group of influential insiders put forth a plan as early as 2008 to build a hotel and conference center on the lot, with the DDA’s assistance.  The Library Lot Conference Center controversy and battle is recorded in this series of posts.  The effort was finally killed by Council resolution in April, 2011 after a public campaign by concerned citizens.  Meanwhile, the DDA had constructed an underground parking structure in which part of the structure was specifically reinforced to support the intended hotel.

Projection of desired building density (700 F.A.R) for Library Lot in DDA study, 2013. Purple area is unreinforced “plaza”.

Things slowed down for a bit while the Ann Arbor District Library planned to build a new library.  The new building would not have been on the Lot (the current building would first have been demolished) but doubtless the Lot would have been used for staging.  However, that bond proposal was defeated in November, 2012.   The DDA sprang to the task of planning the immediate area in a project called “Connecting William Street”.  They used a pseudo-public approach (online surveys, public meetings) which unsurprisingly arrived at the conclusion that a tall building was needed on the lot.  The plan met with derision in some quarters and the City Council declined to adopt it.  It was added to the “resource documents” for the Planning Commission in March, 2013.

In a memorably feckless act (thank you, CM Kunselman), Council passed a resolution in April 2014 to hire a real estate broker.  They put the Lot up for sale.   Although the resolution cites the Connecting William Street project, no further effort was made to establish what the Ann Arbor public saw as the best use for this site.   Further, it accepted the notion that the reinforced portion of the lot would be used for building.  So here we are.

From page 42, Downtown Development Strategies, Calthorpe Associates, 2005

The Calthorpe process, 2005, is often cited as demonstrating that there was a public process followed for the fate of this parcel.  There was a report on Downtown Development Strategies issued (many recommendations have been ignored).  It does not make a specific recommendation on the Library Lot.  However, it calls for building height to be stepped down toward the residential neighborhoods, especially that last block before William.  And it calls for a Town Square.

ADDENDUM: The Library Lot was briefly, but seriously, considered as a site for a new City Hall, a.k.a Municipal Center, in 2006.  Here is the task force report. Community Security and Public Space 2006 The report specifically notes the importance of “an outdoor gathering place” and put the Library Lot high on the alternatives for a new Municipal Center that would include a public space.

 

It’s Not Just About a Park

Admittedly, the idea of a downtown “Central Park” (or Town Square) has been a major theme of the disputes about the Library Lot.  The Library Green Conservancy has been advocating vigorously for a park on the portion of the lot without special reinforcement, and there was that whole problem with collection of signatures on petitions. The DDA has been trying to put a damper on that idea for years.  (The Connecting William Street exercise did not even acknowledge the possibility.)

It’s Not Just About the Parking

The deal has serious implications to downtown parking.  It would give away a substantial part of this expensive structure to a private enterprise. (Some historical details are here: note we will be paying interest for many years to come.)  There are also legal questions that have not been satisfactorily answered.    Read it here.  Finally, it will reduce access to downtown by its customers. Downtown business organizations have objected.

It’s About Our Downtown, Our City

Our social media and comment pages are flooded with anguished complaints and worries about this project.  It is clear that our citizens do not believe this will enhance our experience of our city and that it will likely damage the downtown.  The comments shown below are from my personal social media feeds (Facebook, Nextdoor) and are unedited but anonymous because I don’t wish to make the writers’ identity the issue.  (Click on the boxes to read at full magnification.)

 

 

 

 

 

Note that these comments are all about quality of life and the viability of our downtown businesses.  There is a concern about the resilience of this part of our community, and of course the Downtown is still the center of town, and a location that affects us all.

If Council does vote to approve this deal, they will be going against the express wishes of a substantial number of their constituents.  Based on comments in the media, it seems that they are dazzled by the cash offer.  A complication is that it will supposedly be an assist to “affordable housing”.  But the benefits in that regard are modest.  (One scenario even has the City paying over a million dollars back in order to obtain more units.)  We have not really had a city-based discussion about what we want in “affordable housing” or what our best means of achieving that are.  It seems imprudent to sell off one of our choicest assets for this purpose, especially since so many questions persist about the effects of the parking on both businesses and city finances.  If our city finances are so challenged (and they do not seem to be) we should be looking at savings or new taxes instead of selling off our real estate.

Or – is Council going to go ahead with this because of the dogma of dense development?  In that case, are they considering the health of our present community?  Or are they aiming for a different one?  If the latter, they’d better consider more carefully the consequences of their actions.  A city is a complex ecosystem.  The Council has a solemn duty here.  I hope that they vote to preserve our community.  It has so much good, still.

ADDENDUM: Here is the Ann Arbor News preview of tonight’s vote. “And the consequences of whichever way the council votes could last for generations.”  Yup.

UPDATE: The Council voted to sell the lot, 8-3.  All the usual suspects voted as anticipated.  Here is what Mayor Taylor had to say about it.  

“I love Ann Arbor the way it is. We are not Chicago or Detroit, and I don’t want to be. ”

 

 

 

 

The Placemaking Agenda and Ann Arbor Politics

July 30, 2014

The Placemaking Agenda and its corollary, the New Economy Paradigm, are on the Ann Arbor ballot this August.

For a decade or more, Ann Arbor’s city politics have been driven by two contrasting views of its future. While political contests have sometimes revolved around personalities and personal loyalties, the crucial question underlying almost every race has been that of what kind of community Ann Arbor will be in the future and who (or specifically, what groups) will benefit from that future direction.  At the heart of this divide is the emergence of the Placemaking Agenda.

As has been well discussed here in the past, the traditional party divide (Democratic vs. Republican) is of little value in understanding Ann Arbor politics, since nearly all the action takes place in the Democratic primary.  But there is a real divide, not only in ideology but in the political actors.  This has been thrown into sharp contrast by a recent analysis in the Ann Arbor Chronicle.  What is unusual about this analysis is that, rather than displaying the candidates and those who donated to them, it lists prominent political actors and their donations to individual candidates.   The Chronicle, true to its fastidious ways, avoids attaching labels to the two factions.  But it does note that the candidates of one faction are endorsed by the Michigan Talent Agenda.

Michigan Talent Agenda endorsed candidates:

Christopher Taylor – Mayor

Don Adams – 1st Ward

Kirk Westphal – 2nd Ward

Julie Grand – 3rd Ward

 

The Talent Agenda

Lou Glazer is the founder of Michigan Future, Inc.

Lou Glazer is the founder of Michigan Future, Inc.

This sounds off-hand like something related to the entertainment industry.  But actually it is related to a drive to replace Michigan’s fading manufacturing-based economy with a “knowledge-based”, i.e., information technology-based, digital-age economy. This has been very clearly enunciated by a recent report, The New Path to Prosperity, from Michigan Future, Inc.  What Michigan Future says directly that it wants to achieve is a high personal per capita income, and not a high employment rate. From the report:

Our answer: a high-prosperity Michigan—a place with a per capita personal income consistently above the national average in both national economic expansions and contractions…Places with low unemployment rates, but also lower personal income, aren’t successful to us.

How is this to be achieved?  By bringing in the young “talent” who can participate in the knowledge-based economy, either as entrepreneurs or simply the needed workforce.  The key is to make our area a place where they want to be.  By increasing the attraction of the place, it will be transformed into a New Economy.  That is the kernel of the Placemaking Agenda.

Placemaking

The origins of the placemaking conception are lovable and sweet.  As explained by the Project for Public Spaces, placemaking as a word and concept grew out of the movement to create shared public spaces where a sense of community could be built.  It comes from the environmental movement and emphasizes a connection with nature and other people.  It calls for places where people can move around freely (pedestrian access), with shared activities, often artistic, joyful, and nurturing.  Pictures usually involve lots of young children. It is about places where the human family is at home.  A good Ann Arbor representation of this would be FestiFools, which takes over Main Street for a couple of days each year.

It also connects to the idea of the sense of place.  As we described in our previous post, this is a consciousness of what our community looks and feels like in a whole sense. This comprehensive environment can affect our experience of life.  A recent MIT review has an excellent history of placemaking as part of the evolution of an urban sensibility (see the second chapter).

But the word has been taken over to mean a formula to create an attractive location that has economic benefits. Michigan State University has established an entire department, the Land Policy Institute, around this concept.  As one would expect, it has generated a number of academic studies, workshops, etc. A substantive data-driven study by LPI, Drivers of Economic Performance (BIG file!) lists a number of elements as increasing desirability of a location.  It also unequivocally pairs placemaking with the New Economy (emphasis theirs).  “…the New Economy has created a scenario where people move to places with high endowments of amenities, and jobs follow.”  LPI has now published a study on placemaking that contains this triumph of plannerspeak:

Placemaking can be defined as the development or redevelopment of value-added real estate that integrates essential elements of local and regional allure (e.g., mixed use, walkability, green spaces, energy efficiency) to generate an improved quality of life, a higher economic impact for the community, enhanced property tax revenue and better return to the developer and investors, while minimizing negative environmental and social impacts.

(You’ll notice that we have shifted ground from the soft and fuzzy to the real estate.)

Beginning with Jennifer Granholm’s Cool Cities campaign (2003), the emphasis has been on making cities places that will attract the young, especially young professionals who are members of what Richard Florida called the “creative class”.  The idea was that if you make the city a place these valued workers want to live, they’ll flock in and create a positive economic environment for all.  Here are some of the most commonly cited attributes:

  • Walkability
  • Transportation alternatives (transit, bicycling)
  • Third places (places to hang out; cue the “vibrant downtown”)
  • Green infrastructure (parks, etc.)
  • Active public spaces with things to do
  • Cultural amenities, including public art
  • Attractive built environment (including historic buildings)
  • Environmental sensitivity, such as energy efficiency

Want to hear this beautifully explained by a current candidate?  Here is Christopher Taylor’s statement on behalf of  “the young”.

Glazer and his group have been very influential in setting the state agenda for economic development based on Talent.  Governor Rick Snyder, whose professional career was grounded in the field of information technology (he was the Chairman of Gateway Computers, which he left in 1997), has embraced the objectives and language of this “New Economy” effort.   The core concept is that Michigan must create the types of communities and regions (through Placemaking) that will attract Talent.  As MIPlace.org (supported by a consortium) highlights, Snyder has emphasized “place-based governance”, or more simply, “placemaking” from the beginning.  Here are some excerpts from his address to the Legislature in 2011:

Today, I am announcing our next steps to help communities build the kind of places that will enable them to compete in a global economy.

  • Establish a process for evaluating the performance of economic development and placemaking activities.
  • Encourage new initiatives that support local and regional programs involved in economic development and placemaking.
  • Promote best practices for local and regional economic development and for placemaking activities.

Michigan government has indeed gone through some realignment in these directions.  Here is an interview on Bridge Magazine of Gary Heidel, “Chief Placemaking Officer” of MSHDA.  He explains:

The idea behind placemaking is simple: By improving the quality of life in downtowns and neighborhoods you will create more walkability, which will attract talent, creating jobs and economic development…Quality of life investments from both the public and private sectors focus on housing, mixed use, transportation, public spaces and recreation, entrepreneurialism, historic preservation, arts and culture.

Now MSHDA, the Michigan State Housing Development Authority,  is the state agency that is supposed to “create and preserve safe and decent affordable housing”.  But it is now providing personnel and funds to promote placemaking.  It is, for example, one of the supporters of Concentrate magazine.  We reviewed a speaker event that was sponsored by MSHDA via Concentrate in 2010.  Here is a report from MSHDA that seeks to integrate MSHDA’s traditional responsibilities with placemaking.

Placemaking is a multi-faceted approach to the planning, design and management of public spaces. It influences business development and expansion decisions, inspires downtown revitalization and historic preservation, builds community identity and pride of place, promotes diversity and stimulates the growth of creative enterprise. Placemaking has long been a key organizing idea behind MSHDA’s community development projects. Together with our many partners, we invest in Michigan communities to:  Enhance the quality of life of our residents; To attract and retain businesses, entrepreneurs and workers throughout the state. Place-based economic development—creating vibrant, sustainable communities—is a winning economic strategy that will provide the foundation for a new Michigan.

If one skims through the numerous memos available on the MSHDA website, it is evident that this “placemaking” dictum has penetrated even to the most basic of affordable housing funding applications, including the CDBG and LIHTC.  The 2015-2016 Qualified Allocation Plan description lists “A strengthened focus on project location and placemaking concepts” as the first item in priority changes.  To that end, it indicates further in the document that projects will have to submit WalkScores (walkability) and distance from the nearest transit stop.

The MSHDA details are illustrative of how a ruling paradigm can overtake an entire governmental substructure.  There are many more examples and policy issues that could be brought forward.  Quite a few of them can be seen resonating through Council actions of the last decade.  Just one example: Percent for Art was launched with many public statements that Art would make us into a community that would attract the Right People. (As the guy said in the movie, “but that’s another story”.)

The Golden Future – but for whom?

As with any political agenda, there are likely to be winners and losers with this one.  While not voiced fully, those opposing the “talent agenda” candidates have identified some of the issues.  Who will benefit from bringing in this favored demographic via the potential cost in public money and altered community priorities?

Some of the supporters of the “talent agenda ” candidates have derided opponents as being old fuddy-duddys who don’t want anything to change.  Joan Lowenstein, for example, is the gift that keeps giving.  From labeling residents as “sulky”,  and then elderly, she has now moved on to “prissy”.  But doesn’t classic economic theory suppose that people act according to their own best interests?

There are many more reservations about the “talent agenda” than a simple resistance to change or the wish to be able to stay in one’s home in a nice community.  What kinds of people do we want to support in Ann Arbor?  Do we only want to make this an affluent community or do we want to retain our diversity of incomes and occupations?  This is a regional question as well as a city-based one, but one reason I personally moved to the 5th Ward is its yeasty mix of all kinds of people.  I love our little houses (and bigger houses) with people from all walks of life.

Why am I bringing out this populist theme?  Because the New Economy folks are pretty unambiguous that the point is to make wealth, not to make a diverse community.

The report from LPI cited above also has this paragraph:

Increased creative class employment is associated with positive population change and higher per capita income. This is consistent with previous findings (Adelaja et al., 2009). However, creative class employment is associated with a lower resident employment level. This indicates that the greater the percentage of professionals employed in the creative class, the better the community’s potential for future population and income growth, but not resident employment levels.  (see p. 44)

Get that? Current residents will not see a positive increase in employment.  This is consistent with an article by Richard Florida (yes, the Creative Class guru).  What is now being called “talent clustering” is beneficial to the talent class but not to service and blue-collar workers.  Indeed, they suffer because of higher housing and other costs.  Florida concludes,  “It’s not just a vicious cycle but an unsustainable one — economically, politically, and morally.”  And this is the guy who originated the whole Creative Class idea!

If you reread the statement by Glazer and Grimes, you’ll note that  the point is not jobs, not employment, but an opportunity for high levels of personal wealth.  (Note that a high per capita income is an average and can be driven by a small percentage of very high incomes, while a median income figure would better denote the income status of the population as a whole.)  So it appears that the “Talent Agenda” is quite inequitable.

Something to think about before voting in a Democratic primary.

NOTE:  All but one of the “placemaking” candidates won the primary (Don Adams did not succeed in toppling the First Ward incumbent, Sumi Kailasapathy).  Like every political race, reasons for these results are complex and vary with each contest.  For example, Christopher Taylor far outspent any of his rivals, and there was a three-way race in the Third Ward.  We can’t draw any conclusions about the weight of the placemaking agenda in this outcome.

UPDATE: A post by Washtenaw County planner Nathan Voght, writing on Concentrate magazine, makes a forthright argument for placemaking.

Why is creating “places” a key to transformation of the corridor? Millennials and Baby Boomers together make up the largest segment of the population. Attracting and retaining these age groups is critical to building communities now and in the future, as Millennials will make up most of the work force and represent the future of the economy, and Boomers are downsizing, looking for walkable places with amenities, and have disposable cash. These segments are driving a shift in housing and quality of life that “places” provide, where access to transit, downtowns, and walkable communities is the highest priority.

Voght is the manager for Reimagine Washtenaw, which has incorporated plans for transit-oriented development of denser housing alongside the corridor.  However, it seeks to create the walkable community in an area where most people will be living only to travel elsewhere (downtowns and employment centers) to work and shop.

SECOND UPDATE:  A thoughtful article in The Guardian warns against the cool city push (another way to express the placemaking agenda).    It calls this “policy-making by tribalism” and points out that often tangible benefits to people who actually live in a city are ignored.  From the article:

Those benefits are the heart of the matter, though, and city planners should not limit themselves to the things that will attract young, well-educated people. Their central focus should be to make their cities more affordable and diversified than they were before. When the focus of city governance shifts away from winning spots on magazine lists and towards useful service provision for as many constituents as possible – cool people, uncool people and the vast, middlingly cool majority – the US will finally have the urban renaissance it has been promised.

THIRD UPDATE: An article in Bridge online magazine updates some of the demographics (yes, young people are moving out of Michigan).  The reason could be – jobs!  Some interesting comments also point to Michigan politics and lack of civic infrastructure.

 

Local Food and Good Eating in a Season of Plenty II

November 24, 2012

Ann Arbor Farmers’ Market, October 2012

Good news: the local food movement in Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County has built success on success over the last few years.  It really is a social movement in the sense that it represents a conscious change in the way we view food production and consumption, and is the result of individual and group actions by many people and different groups and institutions.

What is the motivation behind the movement?  Actually, there are several.

Healthful food 

The understanding that our food was being produced using too many toxic materials (especially pesticides) has been growing over decades and a demand for organic food is now well established.  There is a national organic certification system that has a mixed effect (not a subject for this post) but it is simple wisdom to “know your farmer, know your food” in order to be confident of how the food was produced.

Beyond the issue of toxics, the nutritive value of food is dependent both on how it is grown and how processed.  We now know that grass-fed beef is more healthful because of the fatty acid content, and fresh vegetables contain more nutrients than those that have been stored. And of course, the types of food consumed have a profound effect on health.  As Michael Pollan has thoroughly discussed in his book In Defense of Food, the Western diet is making us sick.  He has warned us against eating food that “your grandmother wouldn’t recognize” and boiled down the lesson to his now celebrated basic rule:  “Eat food.  Not too much. Mostly plants.”   (“Food” here means recognizable food, not industrial synthetic “product”.  Twinkie, I’m looking at you.)  Locally grown real food is a direct way to achieve this goal.  This is the driver behind the “Farm to School” effort. The idea is to train children to appreciate fresh, real food, and to make it available to them through school food programs.

Tasty food

Slow Food, an international organization, has been an important impetus behind the local food movement.  Our local chapter, Slow Food Huron Valley, has provided a real brain trust and organizational center for the movement.  As their website says, “We inspire a transformation in food policy, production practices and market forces so that they ensure equity, sustainability and pleasure in the food we eat.”  Note that last – the slow food movement is not just about the environment or helping small farmers, it is about the taste.  Part of the local food movement has been an epicurean interest in artisanal foods – food made by hand, locally.

Local economy

The local food impetus ties in to a larger quest for local economic vitality. The BALLE organization (Business Alliance for Local Living Economies) exemplifies the effort to encourage  “human-scale, interconnected local economies that function in harmony with local ecosystems to meet the basic needs of all people, support just and democratic societies, and foster joyful community life”.  This relates in turn to the concept of localization, the notion of creating self-reliant local communities.  This concept is the core basis of this blog.  For a comprehensive review of the concepts of localization, see the book The Localization Reader. This set of readings is used for a seminar on localization taught at the University of Michigan by Raymond De Young and Thomas Princen, who are the editors of the book.  The articles contained within have little to do with food and much to do with energy and philosophies of social organization.  Some of them are classics and some newly written by the editors.

Encouraging development of  the local food system is the focus of FSEP  (Food System Economic Partnership), which is housed in Washtenaw County but has members (counties) throughout the SE Michigan region.  FSEP has supported small food business development through education and expert assistance and is conducting a Beginning Farmer program through its Tilian Farm Incubator Program.

Grand Rapids is ahead of our region in using the food system for business development, with their Downtown Market project. (Read local blogger Mark Maynard’s take on this.)  Still, though we do not have an indoor facility, we do have a year-round Ann Arbor Farmers’ Market  with a venerable history (download pdf of history,  thanks to The Arbor Market) and a growing list of other farmers’ markets.

Washtenaw Food Hub, open for business

A really exciting recent development, the Washtenaw Food Hub, is now emerging as a reality.  It recently received a grant from the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development for continued development of the former Braun farm (4175 Whitmore Lake Road) into a center for commerce, education, food storage, food preparation and other system-building activities.

Ethical and environmental considerations

Making food choices has increasingly become, for some of us at least, a battle of conscience.  Our industrial food system has been very efficient at delivering relatively inexpensive food, but the cost isn’t just to our waistlines.  It is to the global environment and to other animal species.

As Michael Pollan outlined so well in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, our industrial food system rests heavily on the cultivation of corn (maize).  It is used in many industrial food products as a sweetener and source of chemicals, but most of all it is used to feed animals.  Zea mays is a very remarkable species.  It can be remarkably productive, partly because it is a C4 plant.  Many other grains, like wheat and millet, are C3 plants, which means that they have a defect in their photosynthetic mechanism which causes them to be very inefficient under conditions of high temperatures and water stress.  Maize loves those hot Iowa summers (with enough water).  But its cultivation requires high inputs of fossil fuels for high production.  So as we consume its products, we are also exacerbating our planet’s energy budget problem.

Some ethical considerations about food. Click for larger view.

Cattle are fed maize for rapid weight gain, though they are not adapted to be grain eaters.  This often happens in crowded feedlots where inhumane events are well known.   The animals are under stress during this time and at slaughter.  Chickens are also often caged under stressful conditions.  (California was the first state in the nation to pass a law requiring changes in chicken cage sizes.)  You don’t really want to hear about pigs.  All of these thoughts can affect your appetite.  (There are others; I discussed this in a post on a different blog some time ago.)

Thus, eating local food, in particular locally raised meat, eggs, and dairy, probably not only gives you access to better food but often to food from humanely treated animals.  Of course, the more vegetables (local of course) that you eat instead of these animal products, the more you win on both ethical and health grounds.

Community food security

And finally, the most important reason of all.  Food security means that people have enough to eat. We’ll discuss that at more length in the next post.

Note: Posts on this subject are listed on the Local Food Page.

The Value of Historic Preservation for Ann Arbor

June 12, 2012

One of the strengths of Ann Arbor as a community is its active historic preservation infrastructure.  Here is what the Ann Arbor Preservation Alliance has to say about that (from a recently published brochure, attached here with permission).

Vibrant downtown streets and lively neighborhoods, laced with a rich diversity of 19th and 20th century historic buildings, provide the backdrop to the sense of place Ann Arborites love and the quality of life they enjoy.

Since 1975, when Ann Arbor’s city council declared historic preservation a “public purpose,” citizens have helped create historic districts and advocated for the restoration and rehabilitation of historic structures in commercial districts and residential neighborhoods.

The brochure outlines details of the Historic District Commission (HDC) process.  The city currently has 14 historic districts.

Ann Arbor Historic Districts, from the Ann Arbor Preservation Alliance brochure. Click for a larger image.

In recent years, historic preservation has become controversial, as it has come up against development pressures.  While historic preservation does not prevent development, it institutes a review process and also makes demolition of structures in a district more difficult.

The importance of historic preservation to maintaining the integrity of areas with historic structures was never so apparent as recently, with the tragic chain of events leading to the destruction of seven historic houses in one of our city’s near-downtown neighborhoods.  The value of these Central Area neighborhoods to developers is a strong incentive.

As we outlined in detail in our previous post,  Heritage City Place Row, there are many community-wide reasons to maintain such structures.  One is, simply, economics.  There are more and more discussions of “placemaking” and the importance of “quality of life” to attracting “talent”, young professionals who will enrich us all by joining new start-up enterprises.   The tourism industry also recognizes the importance of historic areas in attracting visitors.  Here’s what we said about that in our previous post:

Perhaps most telling in these difficult times is the argument that all of Ann Arbor stands to lose economic benefit from the destruction of this attractive area.  Donovan Rypkema, who has spoken in Ann Arbor and many other places on the economic benefits of historic preservation, makes the point that over time the most successful urban areas (i.e. those that attract people who will lift the economic climate) are those that maintain historic and architecturally significant structures.  They are part of the “quality of life” indicators that attract innovators, young entrepreneurial and creative people who will help the region be successful.  Ask yourself: what do you see first in pictures of “lovely Ann Arbor” that seek to entice visitors and investors?  You’ll see pictures of our historic Main Street with maybe the Law Quad thrown in.

Unfortunately, the saga of City Place shows that sometimes the story just doesn’t end well.  The City Council failed on several attempts to establish a historic district for the area. The seven contiguous historic houses on South Fifth Avenue just south of William were demolished and two large apartment buildings that will probably house mostly students are now under construction.  Almost the entire block of that historic neighborhood has been replaced. (Photos of the seven demolished houses are on the previous post.)

This is now the uninspiring view along most of the first block of S. Fifth.

A view down S. Fifth showing the two remaining houses on the block.

One reason the developer was able to execute this so-called “by right” development was that he was able to assemble the seven contiguous lots into one lot for the purposes of producing a site plan.  Under provisions of the current R4C zoning, this development met most of the setback and other requirements.  (Actually, the neighborhood submitted an appeal [long text here] to the Zoning Board of Appeals, which for some reason failed even to consider it.)

Now we may be able to make changes in Ann Arbor’s zoning ordinance that would prevent a similar tragedy.  As reported by AnnArbor.com, the City Council has now received the report of the R4C/R2A Zoning District Advisory Committee.  (Download report here.)  We’ll have to hope that Council approves the changes in the zoning ordinance recommended by this citizen committee.    It is important to safeguard our Central Area neighborhoods, and the others where R4C zoning exists.

But if we are to continue protection of historic structures, and to obtain the benefits of historic preservation, citizens as well as council members must support the work of the Historic District Commission as well.  Their decisions have sometimes been controversial, only because the reasoning behind their guidelines is often not intuitive to some people.  (The recent kerfuffle over a rail fence on the Old West Side is an example.)  Their faithful monitoring of our historic districts has resulted in a better community for all of us.

To learn more about the Ann Arbor Preservation Alliance, send an email to historicA2@gmail.com.

A Pause for Breath

June 6, 2012

The secret is out – the publisher of Local in Ann Arbor is running for office again.  I’m running for the open council seat in Ann Arbor’s Fifth Ward.

I want to keep Local in Ann Arbor as what it was intended to be: a blog about the life of our city, with special attention to the issues of the day.  I don’t want it to morph into a campaign vehicle.

There will be more posts, but not very soon.

Issues discussion from a campaign perspective is going on at Ann Arbor – It’s Where We Live (my campaign blog).

We’ll be back.

UPDATE:   Okay, so that sentence should have read “There will be more posts.”  It seems there is a lot to write about that is not directly connected with a political campaign.

The Council Party vs. the Ann Arbor Townies

December 10, 2011

How often have we heard it?  “Ann Arbor in Amber”  (refers to the fossilized resin, not the fictional kingdom), the place where townies “don’t want to change”.  As we said in our earlier post, What Does It Mean to be an Ann Arbor Townie,  this is really a reflection of two different visions for our town.  Here’s what we said then:

Perhaps this is what is really at the bottom of the current political divide in Ann Arbor.  It’s the townies vs. the economic development visionaries.  Or as a friend recently put it, the Community Party vs. the Council Party.  There is a segment of city movers and shakers who would like to see Ann Arbor become a metropolitan center, with  higher density, intense economic development, and more opportunities for wealth generation.  They openly resent the “neighborhood types” (aka current residents) who oppose change that threatens their own neighborhoods and quality of life.  (As former city councilmember Joan Lowenstein so aptly put it, we get sulky.)

This has been a tough year for the Council Party.  They have learned yet once again that elections are the check on unbridled power.  Here’s the problem: voters are residents who have a vested interest in the circumstances that actually affect life in the city.  But the Council Party is often working on behalf of a future vision that doesn’t include those troublesome residents.  Thus, the CP suffered significant defeats in both the primary and general elections of 2011.  (Links are to Ann Arbor Chronicle roundup of those elections.)

In the primary elections,   the CP mounted challengers to two incumbents (Mike Anglin and Steve Kunselman) who have been a thorn in their side.  As we noted at the time, the Fifth Ward race in particular was a direct contest between two views of how Ann Arbor should be governed. As reported by AnnArbor.com, challenger Neal Elyakin rang all the CP bells,  with support for the Fuller Road Station, “dense downtown development and a future economy that supports job creation” and, infamously, a reference to “naysayers”.  In the Third Ward, challenger Ingrid Ault also made statements that could be regarded as pro-development and was endorsed by CP stalwarts such as kingmaker Leah Gunn, Joan Lowenstein, and CM Sandi Smith.  Both challengers were qualified, generally well-regarded in the community, and raised a decent amount of money.  But they were both decisively defeated.  Here are the results of those primary elections.

Council Party incumbent Stephen Rapundalo easily defeated a novice political challenger.  But Tim Hull’s determined campaign did serve notice that Rapundalo might be vulnerable, and thus one of the more remarkable chapters in Ann Arbor political history began.  Former councilmember Jane Lumm was persuaded to come out of political retirement to run as an independent in the general election.  Though a Republican, Lumm was supported by many Democrats as well as Republicans in an upwelling of electoral enthusiasm that can only be described as “post-partisan” in its breadth.  Lumm’s positions were antithetical to the Council Party’s on nearly every point.  She won decisively.   Here are the results of the contests of interest in the November 2011 general election.

Incumbents in two wards were scarcely contested. Sabra Briere (not of the Council Party) had no opposition at all and Marcia Higgins (a CP stalwart) faced an opponent who ran as a Republican but who was rather quirky and apparently entirely self-funded. So if we are keeping score, the total for the season is Council Party 1: Community (or townies) 4.

Take That!  And That!

Clearly this year’s elections were going to be disappointing for the group of insiders who have been running the city for the last 10 years.  Now a defender has emerged to score the upstarts.  Former councilmember Joan Lowenstein has written an article that appeared in the December print edition of The Ann, a magazine that is furnished as an insert in several other print vehicles in Ann Arbor.  The article has now been made available online ( thanks to the publisher) though now formatted as a “letter”.  Lowenstein, who served as an enthusiastic Council Party Council Member until stepping down to run as a judge in the 15th District Court (2008) and who now serves as DDA chair, has a long history of “dissing” residents.  I can’t possibly do better than A2Politico’s summary of that history.  But she has really outdone herself with this one.  Her article combines disinformation with outright insults, and is even politically incorrect.  (Since when is it okay to attack people on the basis of age?)  She specifically calls out Lumm, Anglin and Kunselman as “antis”.

In Lowenstein’s current piece, she accuses townies of opposing the pedestrian crosswalk ordinance (it was not a campaign issue as far as I am aware), and the pedestrian path along Washtenaw.    Though some of Lumm’s voters might have been unhappy with that path because it took a swath out of their property and required some assessments, no mention of it is on her website, and it has certainly not been much discussed citywide.  She appears to attribute opposition to the Fuller Road Parking structure to fear of outsiders.

“A transportation center would bring in more people, and people are dangerous if you want to huddle in a corner and hold on to what you have”

Lowenstein goes on to imply that Community voters are against culture because they think government should provide “only” basic services, interested in “shrinking government so that it provides nothing but water, sewers, roads and police” but not in “public art, concert halls,  theaters and libraries”.    This is due to our crabbed age-related tendencies, when we need to “attract young, industrious, intelligent and civic-minded people”.  Yes, the problem is that “people get more conservative as they age”, and she has already explained that the “antis” are “Most…not only in the category of older but in the subset of elderly”.

What this is all about is the “development to bring in young talent”  idea that has been a consistent element of the Council Party’s world view for some years.  (See our post of almost two years ago with a summary of the arguments.)  So if you care about your neighborhood and want a decent quality of life in your city, you are somehow preventing the young from establishing a foothold.  Framing the argument  as a generational war is hurtful and untrue.  Many of the neighborhoods of Ann Arbor are home to young families and even young single people need reliable water and sewer, safety as provided by police and fire protection, roads that can be traveled, and like to visit parks.  Many of the disputed issues (such as the Justice Center that many of us opposed and the Fuller Road Station) would in fact burden a future generation with debt when the “subset of elderly” will be beyond caring.  Using labels like those in Lowenstein’s article to dismiss those who have a different vision of the future is at first laughable, but finally, disturbing because it attacks community cohesion at a basic level.

Disclosure: I both endorsed and contributed to Anglin, Briere, Kunselman, and Lumm in the last election season.

UPDATE:   AnnArbor.com chose to make Lowenstein’s column and this response into a news story.   It elicited many comments, most of them critical of Lowenstein but some supporting her viewpoint.  The poll appeared to be almost evenly divided, though like so many AnnArbor.com polls the choices were poorly stated.

NOTE: The link to Lowenstein’s column in The Ann is broken.  I cannot identify a source of the original column. (October 16, 2016)

 

Is Regionalism Really a Good Thing?

November 27, 2011

Regionalism has become the guiding force behind many initiatives – but is it good for Ann Arbor?

A group of happy people gathered last Monday (November 21, 2011) to hear an important announcement. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) regional administrator Antonio Riley was there to announce a Sustainable Community grant award to Washtenaw County and there were a number of elected officials basking in the glow.  But the real star of the show was an idea, not a person.  It was Regionalism.

Many recent initiatives in Ann Arbor, Washtenaw County, and Michigan have been organized around regionalism, in which the role of traditional jurisdictions like cities, villages and townships is diminished in order to operate within much wider boundaries.

The idea has a lot of appeal on the face of it. The reasoning behind it has several arguments.

  • One is that certain functions, like transportation, naturally occur over larger geographical areas than the traditional political boundaries describe.
  • A major impetus is that it is “good for business” because of efficiency in organizing and delivering services and administering policies (and business does not have to deal with “a patchwork” of regulations and politics).
  • Perhaps the most persuasive to many is the opportunity to distribute benefits and services more evenly across boundaries, with less regard to the affluence of each locality.  It  is the basis of many of our Federal and state programs, where citizens are guaranteed certain benefits and protections whether in the poorest or most wealthy states or counties.

Tony Derezinski at a recent Ann Arbor council meeting. Courtesy of Ann Arbor Chronicle (photo has been cropped).

This last is a strong moral argument that speaks to “our better angels” and our sense of community when it is being broadly expressed.  It is an argument that lies behind some of the acceptance of the Reimagining Washtenaw Avenue project, which this grant is intended (even designed) to support.  The siren song of intergovernmental cooperation and collaboration speaks in part to our response in Ann Arbor to the knowledge that Ypsilanti (city and township) is our sister urban area that is not as wealthy as fortunate Ann Arbor.

One of the enthusiastic speakers at the announcement was Ann Arbor Councilmember Tony Derezinski, who has been the promoter of Reimagining Washtenaw Avenue since its inception.  CM Derezinski is also a committed supporter of the concept of regionalism.  As he said at the event, “We are a region, we are not just Ann Arbor”.  And then he misquoted (with apologies) poet John Donne in saying, “No municipality is an island unto itself”.  Here is the full quotation of the actual poem (really from a long essay).

In other words, are we not responsible for each other?  This is an easy emotional and empathetic argument which, unfortunately, runs into some practical and political brick walls on close examination.

If you examine the history of humankind even at a superficial level, you will note that it consists of waves of geographical consolidation, followed by periods of revolt in the name of self-determination.  The thing is that natural human communities are self-limiting.  Right now, Europe is trying to work out how much member states will take on in respect of each other. In the United States, we are still arguing the dynamic of federalism vs. states’ rights.

Michigan resolved this question constitutionally as Home Rule.  The  review of this principle by the Michigan Municipal League quotes the 1908 constitution as saying, “each municipality is the best judge of its local needs and the best able to provide for its local necessities.” As the review indicates, the principle of home rule for Michigan municipalities has been eroded in recent years by state law overriding the ability of local units (note that “municipalities” is a basket term for cities, villages, townships, and counties) to regulate a wide variety of issues.  Only this week, as reported by the Ann Arbor Chronicle, the Ann Arbor City Council was grappling with a proposed state law that would prevent Ann Arbor from extending anti-discrimination protection to people on the basis of sexual preference.  The ingrained belief in the home rule principle persists in the Michigan psyche, especially as it comes to taxes.  Some Washtenaw County townships still have a local tax limitation for local services of 1 mill, and they are proud of it.  (Charter townships may tax up to 5 mills.  Special ballot issues don’t count.)

So if we are to extend authority across established jurisdictional lines, two things happen.  One is that local control of just what services and options are offered is limited.  Another is that one jurisdiction may find itself paying, at least potentially, for services received by another.

With Reimagine Washtenaw, if it is fully fleshed out and enacted, four municipalities (Ann Arbor city, Pittsfield Township, Ypsilanti city, Ypsilanti Township) will surrender much of their sovereignty within the Washtenaw corridor to a new entity, a Corridor Improvement Authority. (For good reviews, see the Ann Arbor Chronicle’s report of a public meeting and coverage of a BOC working session.)

There are some other examples of regionalism that specifically affect the City of Ann Arbor:

The move to a countywide transit system.  We have a number of posts about this, including the most recent on “Where the Money Is” .  The decision was made a couple of years ago to emphasize commuter access to Ann Arbor rather than to optimize within-city service.  Now Ann Arbor taxes are being used to pay for express buses to Chelsea and Canton, as well as enhanced service to Ypsilanti.

The Governor’s transit plan. As we reported earlier, Governor Snyder has proposed a Regional Transit Authority that includes Washtenaw County.  If enacted fully, it would draw all Federal and state transportation funds to itself, contract local bus service to AATA and other local entities, but emphasize major routes for the movement of workforce toward the Detroit Metro area, probably by use of Bus Rapid Transit technology.  This would handicap the ability of local transit authorities like AATA to innovate and serve new needs locally.

The Urban County.   Ann Arbor was one of the first Block Grant communities in the state, and for many years was the only community in the county with Federal CDBG (Community Development Block Grant) funds to spend on human services and housiing.  Washtenaw County formed the Urban County to make CDBG-funded services available to other communities.  As described on the county website, the city’s Community Development department was merged with the county’s department and finally the City of Ann Arbor joined the Urban County.  One consequence was that Ann Arbor lost nearly $400,000 a year in human services money that had been grandfathered in.  As the memorandum provided to Council explains, this was to result in an increase across the Urban County of $100,000 in HUD-supplied funds.  But those funds would be directed toward other uses (not human services).  An increase to the county  of $100,000 in Emergency Shelter Grant funds was expected to offset this somewhat.

So while Ann Arbor formerly had human services money from a Federal grant and an independent Housing and Human Services Advisory Board to administer them, the City Council has been obliged to supplement human services from the Ann Arbor general fund in the last several budget years.  This has led to heart-rending presentations from non-profit organizations that serve the needy and their clients.  A search in the Ann Arbor Chronicle archives has many reports of such moments, including the one with paper cranes.  At the same time, general fund support for human services from Washtenaw County has also been cut severely in the wake of County budget problems.  In a triumph of bureaucracy, the County approved a Coordinated Funding model for distribution of services in 2010.  This funnels all funds, including those donated to the United Way, through a goals-and-objectives process that is supposed to be more efficient.  (An astonishing document prepared by Community Development touts the economic “return on investment” for nonprofit funding, quite a change in emphasis from human needs.)  One result was slashing the funds allocated to the Delonis homeless shelter from $160,000 to $25,000 (see the account by the Chronicle).  On an announcement that this would result in closing the “warming center” in which homeless individuals not in residence at the shelter can find protection on coldest nights,  both the County and the City of Ann Arbor found some stopgap funds, just for this year.

The A2 Success project and SPARK  This is regionalism on steroids.  The A2 Success project was begun approximately in early 2009 and has a number of economic development projects for the “Ann Arbor region” (which is essentially Washtenaw County with some incursions into Wayne County).  SPARK, which began as a merger of the former Washtenaw Development Corporation and the Smart Zone, now styles itself  “Ann Arbor, USA” and has been consuming ever more and more general fund support from both the City of Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County.  Now a revived millage tax levied by the county will give SPARK over a quarter of a million dollars next year.

Regionalism Rules – but what about Localization?

Clearly the concept of regionalism has the support of most of our political leaders, and it has a powerful and persuasive voice.  But does it really benefit the community that we have within our City of Ann Arbor?  Or is it actually an effort to exploit the resources that we have, including our educated population,  our positive image countrywide,  our strong cultural environment, and most of all our tax base? In other words, is regionalism at the expense of Ann Arbor taxpayers supportable only for altruistic reasons?  Or does it bring our actual community actual benefits?

You wouldn’t expect a blog called Local in Ann Arbor to espouse regionalism, and you are right.  As we said in our first post, we support something of an opposite concept: localization.  In “What Does It Mean to be an Ann Arbor Townie“,  we tried to put forth the case that we have an unusually desirable place to live because of our special local character.  But it goes beyond that to a belief that a successful, resilient community is built on interdependence at a local level. To some extent, we must be an island  – and island economies are notably self-sufficient.

Localization is a world-view, a prescription for living, and a field of academic study.  I’m looking forward to the coming book on the subject,  The Localization Reader, by UM professors Raymond De Young and Thomas Princen.  You’ll hear more on this from us another day.

UPDATE:  This post is not the place for a full discussion of allocation of costs in AATA’s regional outreach.  However, the attached Report to the Treasurer from last year (it does not include the special service to Ypsilanti) shows the contribution of Ann Arbor taxpayers to the Commuter Express projects.  The University of Michigan does not contribute directly to this service (as stated in a comment below), but rather compensates employees for the cost of their fares.  The report indicates that 31% of this service (to Chelsea and Canton) is paid for by Ann Arbor taxes, and 26.4% by fares.  The remainder is picked up by State and Federal operating assistance.

NOTE: Readers of this post may also find discussions of governance in this post on regional transit plans and its sequel of interest.  The two posts discuss governance issues for regional authorities.

NOTE: We have now begun a new series on this subject, beginning with Regionalism Reconsidered.