Archive for the ‘Basis’ category

Ann Arbor and the Climate Crisis: Policy and Outcomes

September 20, 2019

Thoughts on the day of the global climate strike

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

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

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

Hopes and Prayers

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Local In Ann Arbor

September 15, 2018

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

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

Straight-line growth. It just keeps going!

 

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

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

Localization as an Academic Subject

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Self-governance and the City of Ann Arbor

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

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

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

On to the Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Land is – Our Land?

August 31, 2018

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

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

Public Land in Ann Arbor, Defined

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proper Uses of Public Land

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s Do an RFP

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

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

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

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

But that is a story for later.

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

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

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

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

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

The Primary Struggle for the Future of Ann Arbor

August 5, 2018

Unless you have just arrived from Mars, or possibly Denver or Atlanta, you are aware that the City of Ann Arbor has been locked in a mighty political struggle for years.  The majority (The Powers That Be, formerly the Council Party) has been pushing an agenda to make Ann Arbor into a high-tech generator of wealth.  They have been fighting off insurgent challengers to their authority since approximately 2006. (Some history is in this post.) The rebels are sometimes called “Townies” (see  What Does It Mean to Be an Ann Arbor Townie? ) but most often simply the Neighborhoods. This August primary may very well be the telling blow that decides the future direction of our city. This is a war about the very nature and future of Ann Arbor.  Will we suffer the same fate as many high-tech communities? Or will we be able to sustain our community, our culture, and our home, all which have made Ann Arbor the very special place it is? And will it continue to be a city where the citizens have real influence over its direction?

The Nature and Future of Ann Arbor

So what is the war about?  The very nature and future of Ann Arbor. Here are the two outcomes:

(1) Ann Arbor will go the way of so many other centers of technological enterprise. We will dedicate our governmental priorities and our infrastructure into making the city attractive (as we believe) to the high-tech workers needed for successful startups. Real estate will become prohibitively expensive as money rushes in to take advantage of the wealth being created. Residents of modest income will be displaced as the cost of living increases. Developers will also take over many of the public spaces and familiar institutions. Much of the casual charm of the city and its sense of community and shared culture will be lost.

There are many accounts of the effect on the community of a high-tech community with too much money flowing in for the citizenry to compete. San Francisco and Silicon Valley are the prototypes.  This lengthy documentary shows in full detail what happens when money rushes in after scarce real estate. San Francisco 2.0

(2) Ann Arbor will plan to keep housing and local businesses in place by countering some of the actions and decisions that are leading to displacement. This will be done with careful planning and citizen involvement. Ann Arbor will still continue to evolve and will still support enterprise, but will make it possible for a wide spectrum of residents to live and participate in the community. It will be a resilient community where changes in the built environment will be adaptive, not abrupt, where the future is anticipated but the past is respected. We will have a city that is to human scale, that includes restorative green spaces and accessible public areas.

There is a process for this. See, for example, Boulder. “The city’s infrastructure, design, and neighborhoods are driven by public investments and land use decisions. Choices made today will last for generations. These choices also must be considered on multiple scales and across issues and systems. Facing a future with so much uncertainty will ultimately require flexible and adaptive systems that do not lock the Boulder community into a single pathway.”  (From Boulder Resilient Cities post)

 

The Placemaking Agenda

There has long been an effort to transform the city from a sleepy college town to a high-tech success story.  The aim was economic development.  A guy named Rick Snyder helped to start an incubator called the “IT Zone” in downtown Ann Arbor (1999) and also launched SPARK (2005) which then (2007) merged with the IT Zone  Meanwhile, Washtenaw County passed a resolution naming Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti downtowns as Smart Zones. These were part of a push by Governor Jennifer Granholm to bring economic revival to Michigan via high technology centers. They allowed school taxes to be captured for economic development in the named centers. (Technically, the taxes are repaid to the local schools by the state, but it is complicated.)  Our Local Development Finance Authority administers those funds.  Since then, SPARK has infamously received substantial allocations from both Washtenaw County and Ann Arbor City.  In the same general time period, Gov. Granholm also launched her Cool Cities initiative, which was presumably modeled after the Richard Florida “Rise of the Creative Class” book and theory.  The basic precept is this: to be successful in economic development, cities must install quality of life enhancements that will attract the young “creatives” (who turn out to be mostly tech workers).  There was quite a push for this in Ann Arbor around 2010, as I reported. All this met with the agenda of the Powers, who set to the job of transforming Ann Arbor into a different place, one that would support a technology-driven enterprise culture.

The word for this type of activity is placemaking and it is now a major field of study and implementation. Much of this is discussed in this post: The Placemaking Agenda and Ann Arbor Politics.  The post was written to explain the election of 2014, and most of it remains entirely pertinent today, including the promotion of friendly candidates by the Michigan Talent Agenda. (The MTA is widely known to be run by Ned Staebler, though his name does not appear on the website.) Note the word “talent”.  That is the key to entrepreneurial success, as explained in many different pages. The basic concept is to make Ann Arbor a place that appeals to a different class and type of people, especially those who will lend themselves to a technology-driven enterprise culture.

It worked! Ann Arbor has attracted a number of technology startups, some of which have even stayed in town. A recent highlight: the sale of homegrown Duo Security for $2.53 Billion to Cisco (reported by MLive). Every day seems to bring a new announcement of a start-up or the growth of one, or other similar successes.  We have succeeded in importing “talent” and others. The overall effect of the placemaking efforts has indeed been to bring in more people, which means more need for housing.  It must be acknowledged that the University of Michigan plays a part in this, since the student population continues to increase.  A local blogger, TreeDownTown, has written a useful overview of the student housing picture, in which he concluded that the massive downtown buildings recently built as student-directed luxury units are barely keeping up with demand.  But the overall drive to bring in new “talent” has also meant an influx of affluent new residents who are willing to pay well for housing that satisfies their wish for close-in (to downtown) quality living.  For the first time in several decades, Ann Arbor’s population has grown noticeably.  According to the United States Census Bureau, Ann Arbor City’s population is estimated to have grown from 113,934 to 121,477 between 2010 and 2017, an increase of 6.6%.  That is over 7,500 people looking for housing. Meanwhile, the price of houses is going up and Ann Arbor, according to this 2017 article, is said to be the least affordable housing market in Michigan.

Development, Gentrification, and the Loss of Local Character

One outcome of this drive to transform Ann Arbor has been a strong development push. This has sometimes been led by revisions of downtown zoning (the DDA has been heavily involved in promoting development) but neighborhoods adjacent to downtown have been heavily affected even without changes in zoning. The young population who were the target of all this promotion want to live near downtown, in a nice place, within biking or walking distance.  This has put great pressure on the neighborhoods near downtown.  It has also driven up the value of downtown property to unimaginable heights.

Each time a major development is proposed, it brings out the neighborhood who are fighting to maintain the distinct character of their home territory. For example, Germantown (a neighborhood at the southern edge of downtown, roughly between William, Packard, Madison, and Main) was devastated by the loss of seven historic houses that were the heart of the neighborhood. The Powers opposed a historic district and approved an ugly student-oriented development (City Place) instead. (See Heritage City Place Row.)  Other more recent battles have been over 413 E. Huron, unaccountably zoned D1 right next to a residential neighborhood that is also a miracle of historic preservation, now the Foundry Lofts;  and the Broadway Lowertown site, which TreeDownTown accurately described as a better deal that could have been had by the City.  Battles have also been over the fate of the Library Lot, an Ann Arbor treasure and one of the very few open spaces remaining in the downtown. See Core Spaces and the Soul of Ann Arbor. With the Taylor caucus (the Powers) holding tight, most often with 8 votes but always with a majority, development after development has been approved over the cries of the residents.  The face of Ann Arbor is indelibly changed already.

These individual battles often obscure the true nature of the war itself. The Neighborhoods, who are not really a party or a coherent group, emerge over and over again as residents fighting for the survival of their community. What is at stake in many cases is displacement, as well as loss of local connections and culture. Displacement has already happened in some areas as gentrification has meant replacement of older structures, often affordable rentals or modest owner-occupied houses, with extremely high-end expensive condominium developments.  These are in the desirable near-downtown zone in areas such as Kerrytown, Water Hill, or the Summit Road neighborhood. In classic gentrification style, these were once areas where Black families were grouped because of segregation. Often they had already attracted new owners because they were affordable and had a certain raffish charm. But now the next phase is occurring. For example, Tom Fitzsimmons has built numerous attractive condominiums on former one-house lots or combined lots to create larger developments. New policies appear directed at ensuring such dense development in formerly single-family neighborhoods. As high-priced denser housing sells in each location, the surrounding land becomes more valuable, and simple market pressure causes displacement of renters.

Affordable Housing, the Confusion

One thing everyone agrees with is that housing in Ann Arbor has become unaffordable. But while “affordable housing” is a desirable goal, few agree on what that is and how it should be achieved. To some, affordable housing is targeted to very low income individuals, is subsidized by a variety of governmental programs, and is administered by the Ann Arbor Housing Commission, Avalon Housing, or perhaps other nonprofit or governmental providers. This was the concept presented at a recent Council working session by Jennifer Hall, the Director of the Housing Commission. The AAHC was created to oversee the Federal public housing in Ann Arbor but is becoming the housing and community development department in its reach. (Ann Arbor’s Community Development Department was subsumed by the Urban County in 2008.)  Hall and Washtenaw County’s Teresa Gillotti made a very thorough case of the needs for subsidized housing and called for a millage to pay for new housing.

Washtenaw County’s 2015 study of Housing Affordability and Economic Equity reviewed the demographic differences (income, educational attainment, etc.) between Ann Arbor and the City of Ypsilanti and concluded that Ann Arbor should add (subsidized) affordable housing while Ypsilanti should add market-rate housing intended to attract Ann Arbor’s highly educated population. The evident intent was to homogenize the population of the two cities. (Pittsfield Township was included in the study but has not been much involved in the conversation.)  Jack Eaton was the sole CM to vote against adopting this concept, which he called “social engineering”.  He has been beat up about that ever since.  But in point of fact, the study made no useful suggestions for creating affordable housing and merely imposed targets on both communities that they are unlikely to meet.  The subsidized housing discussed would most often not be accessible to working families making 60-80% of median income (e.g. roughly $44,000 to $57,000).  Those would need what is often called “workforce housing”, which must also be subsidized because it is still below market.  This means that many service personnel and even public employees like schoolteachers and city staff have difficulty in affording housing here.

What must be acknowledged is that everyone who can afford to do so wants to live in Ann Arbor. Thus, the limited land mass in the city has virtually become an extractable resource. Parcels that were previously considered to be virtual wasteland are now being expensively developed.  This creates several classes of people who find living here unaffordable.  Among them are, yes! two-income professional couples.  It is just that expensive.  According to Zillow, the median sales price of a house in Ann Arbor is now about $400,000. Unless one is either very high-income or bought in many years ago, buying a house in Ann Arbor is becoming nearly unreachable.

A new group supportive of the Powers has been insisting loudly that our current neighborhood residential structure must be altered. These self-named YIMBYs (Yes In My BackYard) seem resentful of current residential homeowners, whom they often term “wealth hoarders” because of unearned appreciation in real estate value. Downzoning Upzoning (which allows denser development in single-family neighborhoods) has been called for.  The YIMBYs believe that by building more housing units, regardless of the price, somehow housing will become more affordable and available to them in the desirable areas. Ironically, some appear to be hoping that single-family houses will become available after everyone else moves into the high-priced condos.  Much discussion of these options occurs on a Facebook group called Ann Arbor YIMBY.

Generally, it appears that some major restructuring of the landscape might be proposed in order to allow for more housing of any type, but especially denser market-rate housing. The two Mayoral candidates have weighed in. Jack Eaton has proposed a number of possible approaches to housing lower-income Ann Arborites. It includes using City land to start cooperatives.  Chris Taylor appears to stay with the tried-and-true approach via the Housing Commission but also (somewhat ominously) notes:

If we are to be inclusive, we must also be open to development that will create homes people can afford. This will be disruptive and will involve trade-offs. If we do not begin to explore and experiment now, we will not meet even our modest affordability goals.

The Neighborhoods are not united on all subjects and are not really a coherent group. But generally they wish to retain both their homes and their quality of life.  (Yes, lots of complaint about the roads.)  Gentrification is a threat. So are increased taxes and increased fees. Recently a water rate restructure has reduced the cost of water service to multifamily developments such as are built by developers, while increasing the cost to certain single-family homes. While the City’s basic tax rate has not increased, allocation of City funds to such multi-million dollar projects as the Treeline ($55 Million) (a greenway conservancy that is already attracting more high-value development along the railroad tracks in what were once the old industrial properties and the lowest value) and the Fuller Road Train Station (ca. $80 million) creates potential tax demands for the future. These are high-risk projects that will encumber current or future City budgets, without bringing direct benefits to current residents.  Thus, the Neighborhoods can anticipate either higher taxes, or loss of services, or both, in the drive to bring “talent” for technology to town.

The Citizenry as Decision Makers

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

Ann Arbor has a strong tradition of citizen involvement, and I believe this is one reason for the strength and vitality of the town. We have a City Charter that requires a number of decisions to be based on a vote of the people, or a supermajority (8 votes) of our elected representatives. We have public comment at meetings and open meetings act/freedom of information act requirements for governmental transparency.  With leadership from the former CM Sabra Briere, we have many steps in our development process that make citizen access to planning documents practically global.  (I remember when I had to go to the department physically and beg to see them.)  There are a number of citizen task forces and committees that produce advisory reports.  But some CM have found contributions from the public to be a tedious intervention, sometimes remonstrating from the bench.

Recent actions on the part of the Powers seem to indicate that they consider themselves uniquely qualified to make all the decisions.  They have supported massive redactions in FOIAed documents and most recently supported the signing of a contract by the Mayor and staff, in contravention of the Charter requirement that a vote of 8 CM is required for such action. (They knew they didn’t have the votes.)

This Is It. Vote.

This election may be a decisive battle, since credible challengers against the Powers are running in every race. (Full information on the election and candidates can be found on the Ann Arbor Votes page. Additional insights from these interviews on All About Ann Arbor.)

All four Ann Arbor wards which have incumbents running also have a challenger.  The First Ward has two candidates running for an open seat; one of them has declared his allegiance to the Powers so is treated here as one of them. The other has affiliated himself with the bloc I am calling the Neighborhoods.   Note that each of these candidates has a personal history and individual positions on many issues. None of them are running in a slate. Nevertheless, their places on the chessboard are clear.

Candidates running for City Council in Ann Arbor, August 2018

The race for Mayor is key and the battle is being vigorously fought.  The current Mayor, Christopher Taylor, is challenged by current 4th Ward Councilmember Jack Eaton.  They are very distinct, not only in their views but in their voting records.  Here is a very comprehensive account of their voting records on key issues, as reported by the Ann Arbor News.

This is it, folks. Ann Arbor is at a turning point. Please vote.

Disclosure: I am Jack Eaton’s campaign treasurer and I have supported the objectives of the Neighborhoods for years.

UPDATE:  I have been reminded that Council and Mayor terms have now been extended to four years. This election is more meaningful than ever.

SECOND UPDATE:  This was quite a turnover election. The only “Powers” candidate who survived was Ward 3 Julie Grand, but in addition Mayor Christopher Taylor held an authoritative lead. (Jack Eaton remains as a 4th Ward CM for three years until a new contest.) So Mayor Taylor will now be presiding over a Council where the numbers have turned against him.  He’ll have only 4 votes (including his own) against a potential bloc of 7 votes.  I predict that the Neighborhoods representatives will not operate in the strict discipline of the old Powers bloc, since they are all individuals with independent viewpoints. But it should not be business as usual.

Important note: the new Council will not be seated until the General Election in November. So we have a dangerous period ahead of us where a lame-duck Council may yet take actions.

THIRD UPDATE:  Obviously, the course of business on Council is likely to shift noticeably beginning in November. Mayor Taylor will not be able to command a supermajority as he has been accustomed to, now that the majority (7) has shifted to the Neighborhoods. (Note that neither “party” has a supermajority.)  But we should not expect that drastic changes will occur. For one thing, the Mayor has great influence over the agenda.  Also, at least a couple of the newcomers are showing signs of independence. They will assume their place at the table, not just count as a number.

I thought Ali Ramlawi’s election night comments (video) were very heartening.  They were evidently spontaneous and from the heart.  Here is a transcript of the remarks.  A couple of notable excerpts:

We’ve got a lot to do. I mean, other than the 4th Ward, all the races are close. You know, it’s just like national politics, it’s pretty divided. 50 to 50 almost, you know, give or take a couple percentage points, there’s a lot of work to do. The work has just started. We need to be bigger people and better people, reach across the aisle and work with folks who think differently than us.

I think we can actually have an honest discussion for the first time in a long time. I think the Mayor and Mayor’s party has had a majority, a supermajority where they didn’t really have to take into consideration what other people thought. For the first time in their career, they have been sobered by the fact that there is a great part of Ann Arbor who doesn’t feel comfortable with their decision-making. and who want a different voice and they elected that. So it feels empowering but at the same time there is a lot of responsibility that comes with that and I need to find ways to bridge the gap and be able to make a difference and move things forward in a way that takes all parts of our community together and don’t just shut out a part of them because they don’t have representation on Council.

FOURTH UPDATE: This article from the Wall Street Journal lists Ann Arbor as among the top cities for growth based on the tech culture.  Some of the downside is mentioned.

GENERAL NOTE: Comments are moderated. I do not allow anonymous comments. I deleted an anonymous commenter who gave an address of “gmail@gmail.com”.  Funny, yes?  Discussion is welcomed, but you must own up to your comments and avoid abuse.

 

Ann Arbor Emergent

January 1, 2018

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

Much of Ann Arbor’s political polarization in recent years has been from our various efforts to seize the future.  One problem with visualizing the future is that none of us has a perfect understanding of the outcome from a specific action.  We can surmise, we can expect, we can predict.  Often, whether we understand this or not, we are following a model (a set of hypothetical outcomes based on a perceived mechanism).  But while a model can be used to forecast, it is likely to fail at some level because other factors have not been considered.

My best example of this is the Washtenaw County budget director’s model for revenue in the 2002-2004 timeframe.  “The best predictor of the future is the past.”  Since development (sprawl) was very rapid, the tax revenue for the County was increasing by 6% a year or more.  He drew a straight-line curve showing a huge growth in funds over ten years.  So the County forged ahead with several high-ticket projects in confidence that the funds would be available to pay the costs.  He failed to anticipate either the many policy brakes (Greenbelt, etc.) governments put on sprawl or the massive economic collapse that began in Michigan as early as 2006.

Currently, much policy in Ann Arbor is being driven by models, voiced or implied. For example, the model that if we continue to increase the housing supply, even with extremely high-priced luxury housing, the supply-demand ratio will mean that other housing in the area will become more affordable.  This is stated as an immovable law of nature.

But that can only be tested by putting a particular policy into place.  The outcome will be fixed, whether it fulfills that prediction or not. So, often discussion of the emergent Ann Arbor is composed of warring models and thought experiments.  A piece is missing, though.

Have we as a populace and as a civic body really examined the critical questions of what that emergent Ann Arbor should be?

We have not really elucidated our game board.  How can we test proposed actions and initiatives against a desired outcome if we don’t even have a picture of the outcome?  Do we really know what we want or what the future we are trying to achieve looks like? This leaves so many questions unanswered.  We’ll try to consider them one at a time.

1.Where and what is Ann Arbor?

City of Ann Arbor (red) and areas with Ann Arbor zip codes. (Click to enlarge.)

Ann Arbor Zip Codes and Addresses

To some extent, Ann Arbor is what you make of it, geographically, at least.  There is, of course, the City of Ann Arbor, a landlocked city that is now annexing its final few township islands.  Some of those islands are still part of Ann Arbor Township, a completely different municipality.  But there are many people who have Ann Arbor addresses who don’t live within the city limits. Note that Ann Arbor zip codes include addresses in Superior, Webster, Scio, Lodi and Pittsfield Townships. (Only Ypsilanti does not share an Ann Arbor zip code.)

This is significant because though all those addresses pay property tax to their local governments, many people and businesses in them identify themselves as “Ann Arbor” and have an interest in the future of that label.

The Ann Arbor Public Schools

AAPS School District. The eastern border in Ypsilanti is Golfside Avenue.

Another “Ann Arbor” is the Ann Arbor Public School District.  The AAPS is thought to provide high-quality schools and it is an important feature of the Ann Arbor image and reality.  It is a major real estate selling point. (Often, houses and condominiums for sale in the townships are labeled, “Ann Arbor schools”.)

Of course, children who attend these schools have a common background because of that and it creates a sense of community. (Parents are engaged too.) Further, everyone in the district votes for the AAPS School Board and pays AAPS school taxes.

These boundaries are identical for the Ann Arbor District Library.  The library was historically part of the school district.  The AADL split from the AAPS in 1996 and succeeded in persuading residents to vote in a perpetual millage (does not have to be renewed) of 2.0 mills.  The AADL has won many awards and has multiple activities and several branches, including one in Pittsfield Township. It is an important community center.

Ann Arbor Metropolitan Statistical Area

Portion of SE Michigan as shown in U.S. Census map of MSAs for the U.S.A. Note that Washtenaw County is “Ann Arbor”. The adjacent MSA, Detroit-Warren-Dearborn, defines the combined Detroit Metro.

As we noted in an earlier post about regions including Ann Arbor,  it was determined some years ago that the magic of the name, “Ann Arbor” could be used as a business and economic development asset for the entire county.   Thus, Ann Arbor SPARK became “Ann Arbor, USA” and a marketing effort defined the entire county region as Ann Arbor.  This designation has been solidified by the U.S. Census descriptor of our primary Census area (the Metropolitan Statistical Area, or MSA) as “Ann Arbor” – but its boundaries are those of Washtenaw County.

Census information showing median income by MSA. Arrow is to Washtenaw County (Ann Arbor MSA). Note we are one of the 5 wealthiest counties in the Lower Peninsula.

The actual Census was in 2010. It is supposed to be a comprehensive picture of the American population and includes much demographic and economic information.  The basic Census uses a combination of paper forms and door-to-door interviews.  The American Community Survey (ACS) continues to  do spot surveys and produces updated information on many fronts, especially demographic and economic data.  (Because it is not comprehensive, one needs to be cautious about drawing conclusions, since sampling error is always a possibility.)  Graphic displays of this information can show a map of the U.S. in which various factors are called out by MSA.  With just a little practice, one can quickly pick out Washtenaw County, right next to Wayne County in the far southeastern corner.

Richard Florida’s map of metro inequality. Darker blue means more segregation by income. (Click for larger image.)

This has led to much confusion because so many articles, especially those covering some national topic, use the Census MSA data for analysis.  Data miners and analysts pick up all that nice easily accessible data and draw conclusions which show up in headlines that say “Ann Arbor is…”   A good example was Richard Florida’s 2015 article on  America’s Most Economically Segregated Cities. Headlines indicated that Ann Arbor was the 8th most economically segregated.  Florida’s article was based on a longer study he did earlier, which in turn was based on a Pew Research Center study.  The source of data for all?  You guessed it – the Census.  But while Florida referred often to “metros”, the title of his study was Segregated City.  You’d have to forgive the casual reader for supposing that it meant Ann Arbor City. But if you examine the map closely, you’ll see that little Washtenaw County rectangle.  Since this article was picked up by a number of mainstream media, the conflation and confusion was magnified.

Ann Arbor resident Jean Henry reminded The Ann that despite A2’s recent accolades, we were ranked eighth in income segregation by The New York Times.  (Quoted in The Ann, Ranking the Rankers)

Washtenaw County median income by census tract. Dark green is highest income.

This is more than confusing, it conveys the wrong information.  Washtenaw County is indeed an example of income segregation.  But Ann Arbor City actually contains a large number of the lower-income census tracts.  The county includes some very well-heeled communities outside of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, such as Barton Village and several of the townships.  It is necessary to go down to the level of individual census tracts to see that, and few studies do that.

How do we rate?

By now it has gotten so commonplace to see “Ann Arbor number one” stories that we could almost assume that we have somehow done everything perfectly.  How can you argue with success?  But that doesn’t necessarily jibe with the daily experience of many, or keep us from arguing about details.  Ann Arbor author Patti S. Smith, writing in The Ann, analyzed a variety of the surveys and rating stories and made some good observations in her article, Ranking the Rankers: Just What do Those Top Ten Lists Mean? She offered a number of cautions, including that one should examine the methodology used by the ratings’ source.

One of the recent ratings came from Niche.com – this one was pretty good.  Ann Arbor is the best city in the U.S. to live in!  Looking a little closer, it seems really good since we only scored Bs on housing, crime, jobs, and cost of living, and C on weather.  They partly base their ranking on surveys and reviews.  But also on many publicly available data bases.  Yup, the Census Bureau was the first on the list.

Where are we talking about?

The take-home message?  It is clear that Ann Arbor is both a city and a region.  In another state it would probably be a larger city, perhaps with about the same geographic area as those zip codes, or even larger.  We function much like a metropolitan area.  But we don’t really have a command of that entire area, yet we are expected to serve it in many ways.

It is important as we form an idea of where our future should lead us that we have a clear understanding of the Where that we mean.  Sometimes real “granularity” is needed (getting down to the details, perhaps as small as specific neighborhoods or even just a few blocks). Sometimes it is about the greater metropolitan region or sometimes as broad as the County. Often when we are talking about the urban area, the City of Ypsilanti becomes important to our discussion because we have so many dependencies on one another.  But policy discussions about future initiatives should be informed by an acute awareness of which Ann Arbor we are assigning characteristics or responsibility to. Too often, our leaders make sweeping statements about what Ann Arbor is or should be.  For those of us especially who live in the City of Ann Arbor, we need to know where they are.

NOTE: For information from the U.S. Census about Washtenaw County, consult this page.

 

 

Community, Conversation, and the Ann Arbor Local News Quandary

June 9, 2017

Why do we need a local news source?  In the past there were practical reasons for picking up the newspaper.  Schedules for movies and sport events.  Job postings and other classified ads. Reminders for when City Hall would be closed for a part holiday.  Information about upcoming elections or new ordinances that affected daily life.  Most of these have been replaced by simple Internet searches or subscriptions.  (If you haven’t yet signed up for notices from the city, click on this List of Ann Arbor City Notices and choose the items that interest you.  At least go for the newsletters.)

But there is another, less tangible but perhaps more important reason to read local news.  It is to build a sense of community. We are a social species.  We need to know what others in our immediate circle are doing.  If we are to feel that we are part of our city, our neighborhood, or our county, we need news, even if it is of activities that we ourselves will never participate in.  (Or maybe it will open up new possibilities.)  Also, if we are to be meaningful participants in the circle of life around us, we need information.  Otherwise, we are in danger of being isolated within a tiny group of immediate friends and family, adrift in an increasingly worrisome world.

Oh, we used to complain about the Ann Arbor News, back in the days that it was a real printed newspaper.  It arrived on our doorstep seven days a week and got at least a glance over the main stories and the other parts that were of interest (sports, restaurant reviews, comics, whatever).  It could be irritating in many ways, including the political stance.  (The endorsements were reliably Republican.) Some called it The Snooze and there were parody versions “Not The Ann Arbor News“.  But just about everyone read it and we all knew what we knew.  Then it fell apart.  Read the Michigan Daily’s astute recounting of this history, The Twilight of Newspapers in Ann Arbor Today’s online “Ann Arbor News”, a branch of the media company MLive, has more news from elsewhere than Ann Arbor, and often the reporting is limited to court cases, highway accidents, sports, and business openings.  They are now limited to two print issues per week (Thursday and Sunday) and subscription drives are sounding more and more desperate.  A recent email promises “Convenient Print Home Delivery PLUS Unlimited Digital Access!” for 99¢ a week, limited time.  Unlimited digital access?  This is not a publication that can retreat behind a paywall.

What To Do?

Now keeping up with the Ann Arbor community takes more effort.  We made some suggestions last year in Seeking the News About Ann Arbor and Going to the Source for News of Ann Arbor.  It takes effort and paying attention. Sources are scattered and not always very efficient.  (Social media, for example, contain everything from puppy pictures to valuable notices of events.)  There are a number of individuals and organizations who do publish news items, but usually on a one-at-a-time basis and just clicking on all those bookmarks could take all day.  Many offer free subscriptions but that can also fill up your mailbox with more than is easily handled in the daily rush.  (Highly recommended: Mary Morgan’s CivCity newsletter.  Aimed at increasing civic participation and loaded with links and events. She does all the work of tracking down agenda items that you wanted to know about.)

Now there is an adventurous effort to fill in the gaps.  The Ann Magazine  began as a monthly print publication inserted into other local print newspapers.  It is now being produced in print on a quarterly basis and is assuming more of an online character.  They’ve introduced a new idea.  Explained in Welcome to ANNthology, it is a curated compilation of articles from many independent sites, mostly Ann Arbor but also from other Washtenaw County communities.  This comes to your mailbox five days a week – for free! Click here to go to the subscription form.  As the invitation says, “Don’t be overwhelmed – be informed.”

Is this the only and best answer to our “Ann Arbor news desert” problem?  No, but it is the best opportunity to have our community conversation that has come along for a while.  Go ahead and subscribe.  You’ll like it.

ADDENDUM: A recent symposium discussed the occurrence of “news deserts” and one chapter is about Ann Arbor.   The Ann Arbor segment is pages 38-42.

UPDATE: A bright spot on the Ann Arbor news scene has been added with occasional articles by Mary Morgan on Medium.   Here is the most recent one.  It is possible to sign in to Medium and receive many different types of news feeds and essays.  It is also possible to follow Mary Morgan specifically.  With this step, Mary essentially joins the ranks of serious Ann Arbor bloggers.  A good addition to our possibilities.

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. ”