Archive for the ‘Neighborhoods’ category

Public Process and Governance in Ann Arbor

July 23, 2011

Whereby the primary for the 5th Ward Council seat is a test of theory of governance.

Ann Arbor is and has been going through a Big Changes moment.  There have been a lot of decisions that involve not only notable sums of money but the way our lives are lived in a day-to-day sense.  Part of this has been an aggressive push for development in the downtown and elsewhere.   Both the money issues and the development issues have inspired a smallish group of actively participating citizens (the cast changes depending on a specific issue) who lobby and write their council representatives, and appear at public comment times.  Sometimes contrary viewpoints expressed by citizens have succeeded in modifying Council’s actions, sometimes not.  Sometimes a minority of council members have succeeded in recruiting just enough support to alter the course of a project or issue.  Sometimes the Council has voted in near unanimity for a particular measure regardless of the loud protests coming from the peanut gallery.  But unexpectedly, this engagement by citizens in issues before our local government has become a campaign issue in the August primary for the council seat in the 5th Ward currently held by Mike Anglin.  (Note: I am supporting Anglin for re-election.)

Anglin’s challenger, Neal Elyakin, has been said to have the support of Mayor John Hieftje. As reported in the Ann Arbor Observer of  July 2011 (the Observer does not customarily put its stories online until the next printed issue comes out),  “Hieftje is in many ways a crucial part of the election.  He’s endorsed Rapundalo outright and come close with Ault and Elyakin.  If all three win, the council’s balance of power will shift further towards the mayor.”   And indeed, Elyakin’s positions appear to be the straight Council Party line.  He has particularly endorsed development; from the July 13 League of Women Voters debate, “I know that we can keep that homey Ann Arbor attitude and still have the big-city infrastructure that attracts world-class opportunities”.  He promises to be a champion for the Fuller Road Station (apparently dreams of trains),  a major objective for the Mayor.

Elyakin lays claim to a style that helps to foster consensus on issues.  From his website: “I bring disparate groups together toward problem solving and consensus building.”  But perhaps his true objective was made a bit more clear with his closing statement at the LWV debate (reported both by the Ann Arbor Chronicle and by

“A few naysayers – while I applaud every person’s right to speak up and speak out – should not hold the city hostage, whether they are in the audience or sitting on council.”  (Italics added.)

Elyakin apparently feels things haven’t been going well in the development department. On his campaign website, he says,  “My neighbors speak about city development, and raise concerns that the city must have a better decision making process regarding reasonable development”. But what does he mean by that?  When has the city been “held hostage” by a few naysayers?

I can think of a couple of examples of when the public became very vocal on a development issue.  One example is the two PUD projects proposed for the Germantown neighborhood.  The Heritage Row project (the Chronicle had a recent update) has had nearly a cat’s allowance of lifetimes but is currently in limbo.  The Moravian, a hotly debated (citizens appearing on both sides of the issue) PUD for nearby, was defeated April 5, 2010; the account by the Chronicle explains that though the project attracted 6 votes, it required 8 to pass (an aspect of special rules governing PUDs, or planned unit developments).  In both cases, a majority of council members voted for projects but a minority was able to defeat them because of the city’s ordinances and regulations, which they followed.

The “robust public process” that is now being called for emerged where there was a confluence of big public expenditure and development on the Library Lot Conference Center issue. In that case, a group of citizens kept a consistent watch on the fine points of the question, through RFP advisory committee meetings and as consultant’s reports and independent studies (carefully sliced and diced by the watchful citizens) surfaced.  The group, Citizens Against the Conference Center, formed in the latter days when it appeared that Council was really going to pass the thing through (the scheduled date was April 19, 2011).  In about three weeks, the group raised $3000, produced yard signs that were distributed all over Ann Arbor (a number were still undistributed when the issue closed down early), and rained a steady downpour of emails upon Council. On April 4, 2011, a resolution sponsored by several council members, including some who had supported the project, closed off the subject.

Is this a model for how citizens should interface with their local government?  Not really.  It was a substitute for orderly discussion and public interaction with decision-makers throughout that long process.  To their credit, council members tried to make it a better process at times, CM Sandi Smith introducing an RFP where it appeared the project was just going to be built through administrative fiat, CM Rapundalo making an effort to open up the RFP Advisory Committee process and promising a public hearing.  I’ll always be grateful to Mayor Hieftje for seeing the writing on the wall (or the yard signs) and cutting the thing off cleanly.  But was it a case of the city being held hostage by a small minority?  Hardly.  (For a couple of weeks after the decision, checks to pay for the campaign were still coming in and being returned;  people were flocking to the campaign website and asking for signs.  As much a mass movement as we’ve seen for a while.)  Yet somewhat inadvertently, Elyakin’s campaign has seemed to indicate that he thinks that was an example of a process gone wrong (comment by Gustav Cappaert on the Chronicle: “Why does suggesting that someone build something where the library lot provoke so much ire?”).

Much of what is at issue here boils down to this:  What is our concept of governance? And what place does dissent hold?

Governance is a tough issue.  We now live in a state where a state official can dissolve a local government.  We are seeing a total failure of governance in the US Congress.  In many ways we are very fortunate because we have a council that does, on some level, care what its constituents say.  But there has been a disturbing direction over the last few years of defining the ideal governance model in Ann Arbor as being…let’s all go along with the direction coming from the top.  No dissent, please.

As we reviewed in a post over a year ago, in general we are searching for a thing called “consensus”.  But consensus does not mean that everyone agrees.  It means that people in general will go along with a decision they dislike.  If a decision makes a noticeable fraction of people really, really upset (as would have been the case in the Library Lot Conference Center), things fall apart.

We’ve been told from time to time that we have a thing called “representative government”. Here is a quote from that earlier post:

In the article linked to here, both city administrator Roger Fraser and then-CM Chris Easthope both cited the concept of “representative government”.  According to them, this concept means that once you vote an official into office, you have to accept any decision he makes.  Of course you can throw him out of office at the next election, but meanwhile he is free to make all decisions without any input from you.

Well, that’s one concept of public process.  But the “representative” is also supposed to listen to constituents and at least factor that into his thinking.  Having been on that side of the desk, I know there are times that a representative has to make an unpopular decision and then risk the judgment of the voters.  I don’t actually believe in government by referendum.  We’d have never passed the Civil Rights Act if it had been presented for a public vote.  But when the issue is not so morally weighted, we expect those we elect to listen to us.

The current discussion about a “robust public process” is exploring what the appropriate, and useful, role of the public in making decisions should be.  I’m encouraged by comments from the DDA’s meetings and council action that this is being considered seriously, and will be writing more about it later.

But meanwhile, we are coming up to a point of the only public referendum that really counts, namely elections.

Mike Anglin has sometimes been a lone dissenter, and often if not always a member of the minority on council.  But he has, in doing so, clearly been representing his constituents, to the extent that he hears from them.  Two years ago he won re-election by a 65% margin against a Council Party nominee. (See our analysis.)  Sometimes his lonely vote has been something, that in retrospect, looks pretty good.  Consider that he was the only vote against the Big Hole (the parking garage under the Library Lot). We strenuously argued against it at the time and those arguments have only been augmented by recent developments.  Whether the benefits of this project are in confirmation of its initiation or not, it seems clear now that it deserved more scrutiny.  In any event, would we have been better off if he had raised no objection at all?  Did his objection at least put the matter on the table for discussion?  I think so.  And his recent objection to the Fuller Road sewer improvements surely falls into the same category. (See the account.)

Can Anglin have been said to “hold the city hostage”?  Clearly not, since he didn’t prevail in those cases.  Now, he has been a member of that council minority who have denied the CP a supermajority (8 votes) for certain projects.  Perhaps that is what Elyakin is getting at – that he wants to eliminate those minority votes and thus promote what he terms “reasonable development”.  His endorsement by one of the most pro-development members on Council, Sandi Smith, would seem to support that.

It should be emphasized that Anglin’s votes have been (WAG) 95% with the rest of council— and with the Mayor.  Some of his votes (both for and against) have been in a direction I didn’t like personally.  But I think Elyakin’s criticism of him as a “naysayer” indicates a greater divide – the question of whether dissent and discussion have a place in governance in Ann Arbor.  I think they do.

UPDATE: Anglin won and so did Kunselman, both by about 2-1 margins.  (Kunselman’s numbers were slightly confused by a third candidate in the race.)  The third incumbent in the race, Stephen Rapundalo (a founding member of the Council Party),  suffered some incursions by a novice politician with little funding, Tim Hull.  Here are news accounts, from the Ann Arbor Chronicle and

Results summarized (write-in votes omitted):

The August Democratic primary election has become, like it or not, the only referendum on our local government that we have.  This was a clear result of Council Party 1: Dissidents 2.  It is notable that the Fuller Road Station became one of the main subjects discussed during the campaign.  I would claim that this result shows a lack of enthusiasm for that project.

What, Exactly, is a Robust Public Process?

July 14, 2011

Certain words have their moments in the sun, where they seem to be on every tongue and carry strong meaning that is generally recognized.  Later they become trite or worse and fall into disuse. A particularly good word right now is “robust”.  The dictionary meaning of this word is “strong, healthy, vigorous”.  It is used in particular fields, such as referring to a robust statistical test or a computer system that is resistant to failure.

The word made a marked entry into Ann Arbor politics with the passage of two resolutions on April 4, 2011.  As we reviewed in our previous post, this was the night that the Library Lot Conference Center was laid to rest.   The first resolution, that killed the Valiant proposal and terminated the RFP, contained this phrase:

RESOLVED, That future planning and proposals for this site shall include a robust public process.

The second resolution, which assigned responsibility to the DDA for RFP development of the four city-owned lots, laid out four phases in the process.  In Phase II, the DDA is enjoined to

Solicit robust public input and conduct public meetings to determine residents’ Parcel-level downtown vision.

For Phase III, the DDA should

Solicit robust public input and confirm the extent of community consensus for the Parcel-by-Parcel Plan through public meetings and surveys.

These admonitions were welcome to many of us who support public participation in important civic decisions.  But what does it mean, exactly?

CM Sandi Smith objected to the inclusion of the word “robust” in the first resolution.  When we commented on that in an earlier post, she commented in return that “I do not at all object to the public process which is not only important but mandatory. My objection was to the subjective nature of the word ‘robust’.”

CM Smith has a point.  On hearing the word, many of us think we know what it means.  But on examination, what satisfies this requirement?  A single public meeting on a subject?  Opportunity for public comment? Computerized surveys?  Focus groups? Working exercises? And to what extent and how should public sentiment be incorporated into a final conclusion?  Is overwhelming opposition a veto? Perhaps we need a consensus on this question before we will be able to answer the more substantive ones.

Ann Arbor’s Suburban Brain Problem

March 11, 2011

Suburbs are not getting really great press these days. They are properly a region outside an urban center and best known for the residential colonies formed outside major cities post-World War II (here is a Wikipedia summary).  The images of cookie-cutter neighborhoods, often with transportation malfunctions, come into play.  A little elitism and even racism is associated with the idea. (In Michigan, we especially think of “white flight” from Detroit and the resulting suburbs ring.  In Ann Arbor, a couple of UM professors have been critical of suburbs, including Matthew Lassiter and Jonathan Levine.)  Now, does Ann Arbor qualify as a suburb?  I say no.  Ann Arbor is simply a small city, 45 minutes or more from a large city.

Regardless, Russ Collins, the executive director of the Michigan Theater, has been chafing against the “suburban” mentality of Ann Arborites for years. (I’m pretty sure that I read this from him in a 20-year-old article, but see also DDA minutes and my report from 2005.)  He has often used the word as a pejorative, especially when he is talking about what downtown should be.  Just as mankind supposedly continues to operate with a “savanna brain” based in our origins on the plains of Africa, we neighborhood types in Ann Arbor evidently suffer from suburban brain, which leads us into imprudent and inappropriate yearning for green grass.

This was the main theme of the DDA Partnerships Committee on March 9 as they discussed parks in the downtown with City of Ann Arbor park planner Amy Kuras.  Kuras was there to help the committee in their project to plan for development of the city-owned lots downtown.  She was reviewing with them the PROS plan update.  As described by the Ann Arbor Chronicle, the plan was passed by Council on March 7.  One of the distressing (from the DDA’s viewpoint) facts made evident by the plan is that the Central Area is rather sadly deficient in parks.  The Central Area, which includes but is much larger than the downtown, is bounded by Seventh Street, Stadium Boulevard, Ferdon, and Summit Street/Huron River.

Central Area from city website

As the statistics in the plan make clear, even with the relatively large swaths of West Park and Fuller Park (soon to be a transit hub!), the Central Area is far below other parts of Ann Arbor in park acreage per thousand residents.

From PROS plan; click for larger image

Note that the chart indicates open space that is not city-owned as well, though the figure of 3.7 acres/1000 residents is calculated using only city parkland.  Ann Arbor resident Rita Mitchell, who has been following park matters very closely, made calculations based on addition of city and non-city open space and found that even including the additional open space, there were only 4.79 acres per 1000 residents in the Central Area. Compared to the city-wide average of over 18 acres/1000 residents, that’s not much.

Downtown has very few parks, as is obvious from looking at the map.  The most well-known (Sculpture Park, Liberty Plaza) are mostly concrete with some plantings.  A group advocating a “Central Park”  for the Library Lot make that statement forcefully on their website. But this doesn’t fit with the DDA’s push for development on all downtown lots.  So as the Partnership Committee discussed parks in the downtown, Collins’ frustration burst forth, with a statement that “the public doesn’t understand” the dichotomy between suburban and urban space.  “A suburban template drawn on urban space kills the urban space!”  He urged Kuras to “help us figure out how to communicate”. Kuras agreed that downtown is different qualitatively, that downtown residents “recreate” differently from “suburban” areas.  Susan Pollay pointed out that the public also misconstrues what a “park” should mean.   “We have to stretch the vocabulary.”  She said that the word “park” can mean different things – hardscape is also valuable. It doesn’t have to be green grass.

The group discussed different types of “open space” in the downtown.  University spaces like the Diag were brought up, and the proximity of West Park and Wheeler Park were mentioned.  But for those “recreating” in the downtown, Main Street is open space.  People throng down those wide sidewalks, dine at tables, sit on the planters.   And several times a year, Main Street is closed off to traffic, so the whole street becomes open space.  Kuras mentioned that contributions from developers are supposed to be used to support parks in the same neighborhood, but they are trying to find creative ways to use those contributions in the downtown.  Pollay described an effort to fix up “Transformer Plaza”, a wobegone stretch of concrete filled with electrical transformers next to the Forest Street structure.  They are hoping to place more amenities there to make it a place people can relax.

Another idea is flex space – maybe for some events, the Palio parking lot could be temporarily opened up and “activated”.  Library Lane could be closed to make room for book reading events.  Really, there are already so many open space possibilities in the downtown.  If only we can get those Ann Arbor suburban brains to take it in.

UPDATE:  Dave Askins, in his account of a recent DDA meeting in the Chronicle, captured Collins’ thinking this way:

Russ Collins commented on a theme he’s often explored, namely the idea that Ann Arbor is ostensibly a suburban community and that when people talk about the downtown, often they speak of it as if it’s an urban area. But the types of parks that are effective in a suburban area, Collins said, are not necessarily effective in an urban area. In urban areas, he said, density, activity and noise are positive attributes, even though those features are considered anathema in suburban areas.”

SECOND UPDATE: The final PROS plan was adopted by the City Council in May of 2011.  Download it here.

Parking and the Limits of Downtown

February 25, 2011

Downtown Ann Arbor is the subtext for many of the intense debates about our city’s future.  In part this is because of its role in defining both the image and the life of the city.  In part it is because of its proximity to the main University of Michigan campus and the strong student presence that results.  And in part it is because there is money to made by exploiting the very concept of Downtown.

This has meant that much recent conflict has been over the attempt to expand the limits of downtown, both in concept and in real ways, like denser development outside downtown’s currently planned borders (which are essentially the Downtown Development Authority’s district border).  Thus the debate over Heritage Row (proposed for a residential neighborhood in a near-downtown area) has had many online commenters calling that area downtown.  A similar effect has been seen with the Near North development, where several houses in a near-downtown residential neighborhood are to be razed, with a substantial contribution from the DDA (though the location is outside their district).  Many people, especially those in their 20s and 30s, who would like to find decent, affordable (in the general sense) housing near the downtown and campus, have been resentful at what they see as an artificial distinction, while near-downtown residents feel embattled (see our early post on these two neighborhoods).

Downtown, the experience of life or leisure there, and its cachet are a limited resource that we are trying to sort out among ourselves.  It is partly a realm of the imagination and it is also a sum of gritty decisions and choices.  Some of the most difficult of these involve parking. Whether a visitor, a downtown worker, or a resident, we all want easy access to downtown and easy walkability to our destination.  That is one reason that near-downtown neighborhoods are so appealing; one can simply walk downtown.

The DDA has been managing parking in the downtown since the early 1990s, and doing a very fine job of it, too.  (See discussion of parking on the DDA website.)   Unfortunately, this has also led the DDA into a thorny thicket where many competing interests are vying for this precious resource.  It also has led to demands from the City Council for a big share of the parking revenue (as reported by the Ann Arbor Chronicle).

This week’s DDA committee meetings had several examples of the interaction of downtown’s future and the parking question.  Its Economic Development and Communication committee hosted Mary Kerr, President of the Ann Arbor Convention and Visitor’s Bureau and Jennifer Owens,  Vice President of Business Development, SPARK.  The committee is trying to establish the DDA’s place in the local ecosystem for marketing Ann Arbor and especially its downtown.  Their question to both could be paraphrased as: how do you see the importance of the downtown in your work, and what should happen to make the downtown even more attractive from an economic development standpoint?

Kerr’s answer was that tourists and conventioneers love Ann Arbor’s downtown, and it forms an important part of their impression of the community.  (She repeated this several times, with variations.)  But she mentioned that they would like to be able to walk from their hotel into the downtown (currently most hotels are at the outskirts).    She said that parking was not a complaint for most.  Yet clearly from her comments, the easy access to downtown was an important part of the experience.

Owens, on the other hand, said that parking was a major impediment to having businesses locate downtown.  Potential business owners are frustrated with the lack of easily accessible parking spots.  They expect to pay for them, of course, but those monthly permits (generally awarded on an annual basis; there is a waiting list for most structures) are hard to come by.

As I explained in a 2006 article published by the Ann Arbor Observer,  parking permits do not really pay their freight.  The charges for these permits are supported by hourly parkers, and by the growth in the system, which is nearly nil.  (As we explained in a recent post, the costly payments for the roughly $50 million underground parking structure near the library are now being picked up by the tax increment financing; an indication that the parking system is no longer paying for itself.)  The DDA has tried over the years to minimize the number of downtown workers actually demanding downtown parking. It has been a leader in promoting “alternative” [i.e., nonauto] transportation to and around the downtown and  is now the main supporter of getDowntown, which provides almost free bus passes and promotes bicycling and walking.

But Owens was very clear that the high-tech companies who SPARK is wooing  wanted parking, not mass transit.  “These are people who earn very high incomes.  They are not going to take the bus.”  Her message to DDA was simple.  If you want to bring more businesses downtown, it is parking, parking, parking.

An example was cited by DDA’s executive director Susan Pollay.  She noted some complaints about parking from a recently relocated business. MyBuys, which was at 101 North Main Street, has now expanded and leased the former Kinko’s space (as reported by on East Liberty. MyBuys (which is now employing DDA board member Newcombe Clark), was lured to Michigan by a $3.9 million tax credit from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation and some local assistance from the City of Ann Arbor and SPARK.  Apparently many of their employees are relatively low-income and can’t afford to pay a lot for parking.  But in their old location, they were near enough residential neighborhoods that they could park there and walk to work.  Now they are in what is probably the most heavily parking-impacted area in the city, State Street.  The Liberty Plaza parking structure is already wholly parking permits (mostly commanded by McKinley) and Maynard often fills up in high-demand times. They are boxed in by the UM campus and nearby residential streets are already highly impacted.  MyBuys is complaining about the lack of parking for employees, and as Pollay said, she gets the message that it should be free.  (They are doubtless casting an envious eye on the deal given to Google, which got city-subsidized parking from the General Fund; see this discussion.)

So in a sense, what defines downtown is: anywhere within walking distance, especially if you can leave your car there.  At the DDA’s Bricks and Money committee meeting, staff member Amber Miller presented her parking district study that would, in its broadest application, put anywhere in Ann Arbor that is within walking distance under the “parking management” of the DDA.  Miller, who is a recent graduate of the UM urban planning program, argued hard for her more expansive view (see the explanation and excellent graphics by the Ann Arbor Chronicle).  This would draw a 3,300 foot “buffer” around the downtown, reaching far into residential neighborhoods.  (I was startled to see that my house, 2 miles from State Street and thus just walkable, was just inside the boundary.)  In her concept, all of this area was possible parking for downtown and thus a reasonable area for the DDA to manage.

From the committee packet; click for larger image

Miller also called out streets (not visible in this reproduction but called out in the Chronicle’s account, and colored purple in the projection shown at the meeting) that qualified under more restrictive criteria, including a nonresidential use for some parcels and not eligible for the Residential Parking Permit program.  Committee members were reluctant to endorse the more expansive boundary, or even all the more distant and more obviously residential streets that qualified under the more restrictive guidelines.  Roger Hewitt warned of a political firestorm. He said that putting streets like Sunset Road, for example, under the DDA management, would cause political problems that wouldn’t be warranted.  The consensus of the committee seemed to be to offer to manage the “purple streets”, but maybe not even all of them. Miller, chagrined, pointed out that “land uses might change” (striking fear in this neighborhood advocate’s heart), but wiser heads apparently prevailed.  Pollay also hastened to point out that the DDA would not necessarily plan to put parking meters on all streets under its management.

Regardless of the outcome of this immediate plan, it is clear that not just the neighborhoods immediately adjacent to downtown but also all those within any reasonable walking distance are not being regarded as excluded by all those plan boundaries (Downtown Plan, Calthorpe Plan, etc.) but are gradually being withdrawn into the economic entity that is Ann Arbor’s Downtown.  There will be many more debates to come.

Postscript:  Owens told an amusing story about bringing representatives from a Santa Barbara company to Ann Arbor in July.  They were charmed.  Wonder how much parking opportunity will be necessary to retain that charm during Ann Arbor’s winter?

Sustainable Ann Arbor: Georgetown Reborn

January 11, 2011

There are two competing narratives today about Ann Arbor’s future.  One is Metropolitan Ann Arbor.   In this one, “Ann Arbor” is really a significant fraction of mid-Washtenaw County, and perhaps even beyond. (SPARK calls this our brand,  “Ann Arbor, USA” and this includes a business incubator in Plymouth, Michigan (Wayne County). The actual city itself is the center of a growing nexus of enterprise and development, with high-density residential buildings springing up along transit corridors (Transit-Oriented Development) that use sophisticated rail or other rapid, high-volume transportation, centered around the University of Michigan (see also our post, Our Shining City on a Hill).

The other narrative is Sustainable Ann Arbor, where local (city) residents foster interdependence and build connections and resources that will support us as a community over the long run.  Sustainable Ann Arbor is focused on becoming ever more a walkable and bikeable community where local businesses (run by local people) thrive, food produced in the immediate area is sold in farmer’s markets and local eateries, and where a quality of life and special character that is “home” is fostered.  Yes, I am talking about localization and making our city work for its residents.

Now that the Council is underway with budget talks, these two narratives are competing for resources.  There is plenty of grim news for the Sustainable side of the story.  So for that reason, the news that the ruin that is Georgetown Mall might be redeveloped is very good news indeed. According to, the new development would be called Packard Square and, from the description, would cover a good deal more of the land area at the site than the current buildings do.  From comments attributed to the developer, it appears that this may be the first development to take advantage of the new zoning resulting from the Area, Height, and Placement project (see detail of changes to the previous sections).  Those changes increased allowable heights, but more importantly perhaps for this case reduced the necessary setbacks.  I haven’t seen the proposed design, but the article indicates that  “The retail space would surround a public square, with a small amount of park space and some benches… Beyond the retail space, the apartments would surround a pool area. Parking would be largely around the perimeter of the property, with a total of 450 spaces and some located under the basement of the apartments.”  That sounds much more attractive and people-friendly than the old huge front parking lot.

Aside from a more attractive appearance and functionality, this is very good news because of its location.  This development comes at a time that the Packard corridor has been undergoing a number of interesting changes.  There have been a couple of new businesses near the upscale Morgan & York gourmet food and wine shop.  Fraser’s Pub has evolved from a smoky bar to a family-friendly neighborhood hangout with good pizza.  With the business development at the corner where Food and Drug used to be (NW of the intersection of Stadium and Packard), the area has a deli, a good liquor/wine shop, a coffee shop, and still keeps its Dairy Queen for summer ice cream.  Do I sound like a booster?  Yes, I am, because this is exactly what a sustainable neighborhood should look like, with many different services available within walking distance.  And the Kroger at South Industrial, plus a number of other services, are not far away.

This last year I and my husband have been making an attempt to expand our walking range.  Thus I have taken to using a simple Google-map-based pedometer to calculate the distance to various locations within Ann Arbor.  I am pleased to discover that the distance from our house to the east side of downtown (and the west side of the UM campus) is only 2 miles.  Since we can now walk 1 mile very quickly without noticing it, and 2 miles with a little break at the end, this means that even when our local bus service doesn’t run, downtown is accessible to us without an automobile, at least in decent weather.

My definition of the good life (and the sustainable one) is being able to reach most of the necessities of life without climbing into an automobile.  Ann Arbor still has a very decent local bus system, though Metropolitan Ann Arbor is driving it toward service concentrated on commuters coming in from elsewhere.  Residents of the new Packard Square will be able to reach the intersection of Stadium and Packard by walking only 0.8 miles (perhaps 15 minutes) and the UM campus or downtown at 2 miles.  By bicycle, hardly any time at all.  And AATA’s Route 5 comes right up Packard every 15 minutes, 12 hours a day.

There will, of course, be some issues to work out, like perviousness (swales?) and details of the design as it affects immediate neighbors.   The preliminary plans call for 220 rental apartments and they will be “upgrades”, according to the developer.  There will also be a few additional service establishments. This is what urban infill should look like. No demolition of an existing neighborhood, instead a denser development within walking distance of downtown, in an emerging area.  And the neighborhood will no longer have to co-exist with a ruin.  The New Year couldn’t start off much better.

UPDATE: The Number One exhibit of  Metropolitan Ann Arbor’s tug on our city’s resources is the Fuller Road Station.  The recent article on, reporting on a recent working session about FRS, contains many pertinent comments from readers about this open sink for city funds.

SECOND UPDATE: Today’s story includes a rendering of the project.

Young Talent, Innovation, and the Growth of Ann Arbor

March 7, 2010

Introducing a meditation on the underlying themes in a discussion of  the future of Ann Arbor.

Concentrate, the online magazine that has a strong pro-development stance, recently (March 4, 2010)  sponsored a speaker event called “Downtown Development – a Generational Divide”.  The intro on the website was ominous. “Who decides what Ann Arbor’s downtown looks and feels like? Are we making it a place where young and talented people want to be? Is density good for our community?”  Many of us who are tired of being called “NIMBYs” for supporting neighborhood integrity and historic preservation found ourselves on the defensive, since it seems to imply that the old folks better get out of the way and let development blossom, because that’s what the young want.  (Some of the comments on’s story reflected this defensiveness.)  But the talk wasn’t like that, and the panel, which consisted of two “younger generation” and two “older generation” types, avoided all the pitfalls and pointed the way to a number of discussions that we are having and should continue to have.  The evening also highlighted the need to examine the underlying assumptions that are guiding much of the talk about Ann Arbor’s future.

Dan Gilmartin, executive director of the Michigan Municipal League, was the speaker.  He has apparently been giving the same talk all over Michigan.  (The MML is an educational organization that promotes the causes of cities.)  His message is blunt: Michigan is sinking fast, and it’s never going to be the way it was.  We have to change.  But much of this was predicated on the loss of the auto industry, less of an issue for the Ann Arbor area.  (We are the company town for the University of Michigan, which looks as though it is staying put.) Still, he made an important point.  It is important for a city, including ours, to attract and retain young people who will bring their vitality and creativity to bear on making new kinds of economic opportunity.

Gilmartin was supporting a campaign that has come out of Detroit, called Let’s Save Michigan. A handout passed out at the talk had the following bullets, not visible yet on the website.  I wish they had done a little copyediting before putting it out.

What We’re For

  • Attracting and keep (sic) a talented/educated workforce by offering livable communities, green jobs, vibrant downtowns, and arts and culture.
  • Targeted economic incentives by bringing jobs to cities and urban areas.
  • Improved quality of life by promoting bars and restaurants, parks, and museum in walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods.
  • Innovative job creation by incentivizing entrepreneurship and small business.
  • Smart city redevelopment by rebuilding downtowns and repopulate mixed-use areas.
  • Sustaining and improving existing infrastructure by maintaing (sic) and improving public transit in urban areas.
  • Appropriate taxation policies that reflect our modern economy and promote better use of existing infrastructure.

The language is garbled and sometimes opaque on careful reading, but the theme is a familiar new urbanist one with a strong dose of “Cool Cities” (what the points about economic incentives indicate are a mystery).

Gilmartin’s talk was easier to understand and well-presented.  He started right off by saying that there was a cultural and attitudinal divide in discussions of Michigan’s future.  “Michigan is in such a funk.”  Everyone in Michigan is, he said, basically managing the decline, right down to the municipal level, where we talk about how many police and firefighters to lay off this year or next (sound familiar?).  He urged us to change the conversation.

Much of the talk was around the idea that Michigan has to move beyond the old paradigm of a one-industry state where people could get a good job without a college education to one that entices the young talent to stay here and create a new economy.  In 2008, Gilmartin said, Michigan was 37th among the states in per capita income.   Meanwhile, the young Millennials (defined here as young adults under 35) are not staying; 46% leave Michigan after graduation.

Now here is where we get to the crux of his thesis.  He says they are not leaving because they don’t have jobs, but because they don’t find the experience of living here sufficiently enticing.  While in the old paradigm, people moved to where the jobs are – now (young) people move to where they want to live, then create the jobs.

“Place attracts people.”  With the global economy, knowledge-based industries are the future and people can work anywhere because of the Internet and general connectiveness.  So young people will choose where to live first, then look for work. They are choosing urban centers.  Citing a study in Fast Company magazine, he said that the young innovators choose “fast cities” like London, where one out of eight work in a “creative industry”.

What this means about jobs is that we are relying on these young innovators to create them. “We need to measure job creation in ones and twos instead of thousands.”  So for job growth, we have to bring the creative innovators here, where they will make the jobs.

And what do the young creative innovators want?  A sense of place. An urbanized area where they run into lots of others like themselves (but not too much like, they treasure diversity).  Open space. (Hooray for the park on the Library Lot!) Museums and cultural opportunities.  Walkable communities. Cafés. Bike paths. Informal “third places” where they can gather (Commons, anyone?). Green design.  They want communities built around happiness and well-being, that aim for excellence, not mediocrity.  Accessibility.  Sociability.  Much of this is about what commentator Alice Ralph later characterized as “density of experience”:  what Gilmartin called “1000 nights” worth of activities.  (That’s two nights a week for 50 weeks a year for 10 years, after which the Millennial gets married and moves to the suburbs.)

Except maybe for the 1000 nights concept, there is little here that any thinking sensitive person would contest, and it seems that Ann Arbor already fills a lot of those criteria.  But then we launch into a new discussion: the role of density in achieving all this.  As Gilmartin said, we hate two things: sprawl and density.  “You gotta figure that out.”

It was clear that moderator Jeff Meyers and the institutional host of this talk, Concentrate, wanted to make the discussion about density and development, though that was not the major focus of the talk.  The panel, Anya Dale (a planner who works for Washtenaw County), Ray Detter (of the Downtown Citizens’ Advisory Council), Richard (aka Murph) Murphy, (a founder of Arbor Update and until recently the Ypsilanti city planner), and Alice Ralph (a civic activist who most recently wrote the Commons proposal) neatly side-stepped most of his efforts to make the subject contentious on a generational level, as the title implied.

In answer to a question about whether the Millennials felt too entitled, the panel agreed that we need a diversity of options for all ages, including more housing choices (other than, as Dale said, single-family houses or expensive downtown condos).  Meyers then asked who gets to define the character of a neighborhood (and, he added, is this question too focused on aesthetics);  he interrupted Ralph to ask whether that should be current or “future” residents.  The panel generally answered that the “neighbors” (current residents)  should decide, regardless, as Murphy said, of age and tenure (he left the operational question of contacting future residents aside).  Detter also made the point that increased downtown density should not extend to the near-downtown neighborhoods that come under the Central Area Plan, where scale and character were considered important by the plan and the residents alike. (This was not a direct answer to the question but met the implied challenge, since much of the recent controversy has been about the near-downtown Germantown area, where one of Concentrate’s principals has an interest in the Moravian project.)  Ralph made the insightful comment that the presentation was about encouraging a positive social development, not about encouraging business, commercial and development interests to create more of what they already have. Murphy observed that some near-downtown neighborhoods (the Old Fourth Ward) already were quite dense (density being defined as number of housing units per area) and that other near-downtown neighborhoods could help meet the challenge of increasing density without altering scale or character by allowing accessory apartments.  This would acknowledge that many households are quite small now (1-2 people) and allow more people to live in that area.

Meyers then asked if you couldn’t have medium-size buildings in between, but Dale said that is not how a successful community works; the solution is transit.  There was then a turn of the discussion to improving transit, so that (young) people can live many places in the area (not just downtown) and get places they need to go efficiently.  Murphy mentioned that there are areas elsewhere besides downtown that could accept a lot more density (State Street/Eisenhower being an example); if good transit systems exist, this is a good workable solution.  All four panelists agreed that regional transportation as well as local transportation was important.

So the panel was able to show pretty fair unanimity on this question: how do we create more diverse housing and greater residential density in our community?  But some of the underlying questions were not addressed.

1. Does the thesis put forth by the speaker that we can and should intentionally create a community that will draw young talent to Ann Arbor in order to provide for a future economic benefit make sense?

2. If so, is residential density at all part of the strategy?

3. What is the current state of that demographic in our city?

4. How does this idea fit into our overall hopes for Ann Arbor’s future and where we go from here?

UPDATE: Jeff Meyers, the editor of Concentrate, wrote a lengthy comment and rebuttal to much of this post, which I have posted below under comments.  (It was sent to our gmail address after he was unable to post a comment in the ordinary way on the site.)  I won’t comment on his statements except to acknowledge that I was evidently in error regarding Newcombe Clark’s current involvement with Concentrate, for which I apologize.

SECOND UPDATE: Crain’s Detroit Business has a story about 20-somethings who have come back to Ann Arbor – for the quality of life, among other things.

The Fog of Plans (II)

December 18, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      The Fog of Plans (I)

      October 18, 2009

      Here’s the scenario: you read a notice or receive an email that there is a public hearing/public meeting/open house/committee discussion/council vote coming up about The Plan. Do your eyes cross? Do you experience a sense of disorientation? Déja vu? If so, you are not alone. Over the last several years, Ann Arbor citizens have been bombarded with a whole series of new plans, most of which affect the way our city will grow or evolve in the future. This year alone, we are simultaneously considering A2D2 Zoning (downtown), A2D2 Design Guidelines, Area, Height and Placement zoning changes, and a consolidated master plan. Plus, there is a committee considering changes in R4C/R2A zoning districts and we are beginning to hear about new initiatives based on the just-passed Ann Arbor Transportation Plan Update.

      I call this the “Fog of Plans” (on analogy to the “Fog of War” ) because the pace of change and the many different details and considerations involved, the number of people and institutions involved, the implications and possible outcomes, make it difficult for individual citizens to keep up with all the different plans being considered, much less to read, consider, and appear at public meetings and hearings to give appropriate citizen feedback. As we discussed in an earlier post about plans, these can have serious implications for the future.

      This post is the first of a series that will enumerate and discuss these plans.  Links to plans and other important documents will be placed on the Planning Page.  Today’s tidbits (bearing no resemblance at all to anything grilled) on the page are the different chapters of the City of Ann Arbor Master Plan Land Use Element, commonly called the “consolidated master plan”.

      Here’s what the introduction says about this plan:

      In 2007, City staff proposed consolidating the four existing area plans into one master plan document. One document could be updated more quickly and efficiently than updating four area plans. The consolidation would be the first of two major phases. The first phase consist of:
      a) combining the substantive elements of all four area plans into one document,
      b) updating the demographic information, and
      c) creating new graphic material.
      The second phase of the process would include the development of new land use recommendations for large sites and major corridors. Staff presented the concept to City Council in early 2007 and received direction to proceed. Extensive public involvement was involved with the creation of all four area plans. Two public hearings are included during the consolidation process.

      The Planning Commission assigned the initial review of the draft plan to the Master Plan Revisions Committee. The committee reviewed and edited the document. The plan was then brought before the full Planning Commission for review. A public hearing was held to receive public comment on the draft plan. The Planning Commission approved the plan on May 5, 2009. City Council held a public hearing on the draft plan and approved it on June 15, 2009.

      The timeline has changed since that last paragraph was written.  The Planning Commission did indeed hold a public hearing on May 5, but the city attorney’s office requested that the PC should pass a more explicit resolution than it did.  This happened on October 6, 2009.  One of the lines of the resolution reads as follows:

      WHEREAS, The City of Ann Arbor Master Plan: Land Use Element will replace four area plans: South Area Plan (1990), Central Area Plan (1992), West Area Plan (1995), and Northeast Area Plan (2006), into one comprehensive land use plan which will facilitate regular updates;

      Did you get that?  This plan will supercede four existing area plans.  And yet there has been very little opportunity for the public in these four areas to weigh in on any changes.  Traditionally, master plans are changed only after extensive public discussion.

      Of course, that would not be needed if this were merely a collation of the existing plans.  But based on a brief scanning of the document, I believe that we will find many new policy initiatives embedded in it. Among other things, it has a freshly written vision statement that emphasizes transportation to a degree that at least three of the plans did not, and a series of goals and objectives.  It also includes policy recommendations like making the Lowertown area into a TIF zone that are worth some additional discussion.  Some of the implementation goals and actions sound a lot like what we have been hearing at the AHP meetings.  And yet the only opportunities for the public to have input are the Planning Commission public hearing and the Council public hearing.

      Here’s a recommendation: look at least at the parts of the consolidated plan that affect you and the area where you live. If you are a “planwise person”, perhaps you even have a copy of the existing area plan.  (They are available on the city website.) Do you see anything that sends up a red flag?

      Note that the citywide zoning map on The Planning Page has a great feature; with Acrobat Reader, you can blow up the section of the city where you live and check the zoning.  I noticed that a couple of parks in my area were not zoned as Public Land.

      The plan is scheduled to come to Council in November.

      UPDATE: After we posted the consolidated plan online, Planning found the time to reformat the document so that it is accessible.  It can be found by chapters on the Planning page of the city website.

      SECOND UPDATE: The consolidated plan is on the agenda of the November 5, 2009 City Council meeting.  Recall that by custom, the “old” council has one more meeting after the November elections, after which the “new” council (just elected or re-elected) is seated.  A great time for mischief, as outgoing councilmembers have absolutely no motivation to kowtow to voters’ wishes any more.  I hope that the council has the grace to table it and also postpone the scheduled public hearing.  Right, a public hearing is scheduled.  Didn’t you hear?

      The memorandum by Jayne Miller explaining the process and reasoning behind the consolidated plan is here.

      City Place – Reborn?

      October 13, 2009

      If persistence is the key to success, Alex de Parry is certainly entitled to some. He has exasperated, astonished and at times enraged the Germantown neighborhood with his efforts to develop his properties there. Looked at from one perspective, he has accomplished a lot. The South Fifth Avenue area didn’t have a neighborhood association before he began submitting plans for a massive development there, and they didn’t have a historic district either. Now the neighborhood seems to have discovered itself and become cohesive, there is a historic study committee, and the area is definitely on the map with a name that it didn’t have before (Germantown).  But after nearly two years of trying, de Parry still doesn’t have a project.  Last night (October 12) he tried once again to reconcile the neighborhood to a plan for redevelopment.  Trouble was, most of the neighborhood and historic preservation advocates who have been tracking this process were boycotting the meeting.  When I arrived at Conor O’Neill’s Celtic Room on Main Street for the 5:30 meeting, de Parry’s attorney Scott Munzel was trying to get the reporter for (Ryan Stanton) to leave because it wasn’t a public meeting.  But Munzel shortly left, which was a good thing since reporters (Stanton,’s business reporter Paula Gardner, and I) were most of the audience.   There were two “observers” from the Germantown association who declined to answer questions or to participate much.  Otherwise, it was a golden opportunity for journalists to ask the questions.

      There really was new information and a new vision.  A new architect who specializes in historic preservation and re-use has just been recruited.  John Dziurman did his best to present himself and his (only very new and preliminary) thoughts about the project to this odd audience.  I found Dziurman to be very credible.  He said a lot of the right things that supported his claim to be interested in true preservation of the existing houses as historic structures.  Dziurman is on the historic district study committee for his own community (Rochester Hills) and said that the first thing he looked at was what steps would be needed to satisfy National Register rules; he has already consulted with state officials.  His intent, he said, was to work toward the time when the study committee does succeed in establishing a historic district.  In other words, he is trying to anticipate the requirements that a historic district would place on the renovation and reuse of the existing houses at 407, 411, 415, 419, 424, 433 and 437 South Fifth. (See photos from the Ann Arbor Chronicle’s article that also describes the houses.)

      Earlier PUD idea with façadectomized buildings

      Earlier PUD idea with façadectomized buildings

      Unlike an earlier version of the PUD that would have involved “façadectomies” of the historic houses that would be pasted onto a new building, Dziurman’s concept would keep all the existing structures intact and integral, with renovation that is respectful of their historic nature.  He spoke of looking at each building’s history to find its “time of significance” and determine what its footprint was at that time.  (Presumably there have been various additions and modifications over time.)  He also mentioned choosing the exterior color according to the appropriate time when the building was most “alive” (my term).  I think that he was hinting that he will avoid theme-park colors. “I want you to see the homes just as they were.”

      So if the houses are to be preserved in their entirety, how do we get a project with multiple housing units?  First, some of them will have to be moved up to the 19′ setback that one or two already have.  (Dziurman has already inquired about this at the state office – difficult for a historic building, but doable.)  Then two large multifamily buildings would be erected behind the houses.  The architect emphasized use of appropriate window geometry, etc. to make these compatible.  Also each of the houses will contain several units (as they do now), plus some “garden apartments”, meaning apartments set into the lower level (aka basement) of at least some houses.  All this is very much under development, since Dziurman only just came onto the job.  But de Parry says that there will be a total of thirty to fifty units, with lots of efficiencies, and some one, two, and three-bedroom units.  He is aiming for rental “workforce” housing and says there is a lot of demand for efficiency apartments right now.  At the meeting and in subsequent emails, he has indicated that his picture of future tenants is a mix of young professionals and older empty-nesters who will appreciate being near downtown, but not the more affluent people who are more likely to purchase condominiums downtown.  He has also ruled out six-bedroom apartments aimed primarily at students, as were mentioned in some earlier plans, saying that he heard too many objections to those.  “I’m not aiming to change the demographics of the area.”  All this plus underground parking, stormwater reservoirs and LEED-certified buildings (but geothermal may not be in the picture any more).

      There are a couple of questions that bear on the success of this new reborn concept.  First, can de Parry regain the trust of the Germantown neighborhood?  It has been a rocky ride. The trajectory of the many different projects all called City Place is pretty tough to follow.  As helpfully listed recently by the Ann Arbor Chronicle, the story began with a request for “conditional zoning”, rejected by the Planning Commission on January 15, 2008.  This was followed by the first Planned Unit Development proposal on May 20, 2008, also rejected by the PC.

      The early high-density version of the PUD (image courtesy of the Ann Arbor Chronicle)

      The early high-density version of the PUD (image courtesy of the Ann Arbor Chronicle)

      As most know, PUD proposals are popular development tools for making the most of a parcel, and that early one was  huge.  As explained by the Chronicle, it would have had 90 units with 164 bedrooms.  This was considered by the nearby residents to be doing violence to the very fabric of their neighborhood, and as we reported some months ago, a neighborhood organization was formalized in January 2009, after an early failure to get council to approve a historic district study committee,  and just as council voted down de Parry’s second attempt at a PUD.  But de Parry came back with an (apparently deliberately) obnoxious so-called “by right” development based on the existing R4C zoning.   This ball got kicked around for a while till council postponed action on it in July at de Parry’s request, though that resolution gave him the right to bring it back with a month’s notice.  The idea was that he could continue negotiations on a PUD (clearly his true wish).  Weary of the need for constant vigilance, neighborhood activists proposed (via CM Mike Anglin) a moratorium on any development in R4C zoning districts.  But in a surprise, council instead approved a historic study committee with a limited area.  This came with a moratorium on demolition in the 5th Avenue block under contention.  Suddenly, de Parry responded by bringing back the “by right” site plan which council approved grudgingly on September 21.  This move elicited a remarkably critical editorial from AnnArbor .com and exasperated head-shakes from everyone else.

      So – shoosh.  Can we talk?  Here’s hoping that de Parry’s latest volley of historic preservation is for real. Obviously he still doesn’t really want to build that ugly R4C-based site plan.  Sometime he and his sincere new architect are going to have to make connection with the neighbors again, and figure out how to coordinate their planning with the historic district processes now underway.  When asked a pointed question about how he would fit his timeline into those processes, he was not really able to answer.  But he says that he hopes to have a new proposal by the end of the month (October??? I’m glad I’m not the architect).

      Another question is simply the economic viability of the project.  Will the reduced number of bedrooms and meticulous preservation of historic structures, for which rents modest enough to qualify as “workforce housing” will be charged, be sufficiently profitable?  The actual rental amounts have not been stated,  but if young professionals like the Google employee recently profiled in Concentrate are going to rent those nice units, there will be an affordability problem.   According to HUD income figures and guidelines, the annual median income for single people in Ann Arbor (2008) is about $56,000; “workforce” is often defined as about 80% of the AMI, which is about $43,000.  Total housing expense of $1,076 is thought to be affordable at that income level.  Concentrate’s blogger, Kate Rose, is looking for something under $1000.  If everything works, de Parry’s new concept should fit her just fine.  I hope that they can afford each other.

      UPDATE: Tom Whitaker helpfully pointed out that I should have said the standards to which renovation will be done are the Secretary of the Interior’s standards for rehabilitation.  Mr. Dziurman did in fact reference these but I wasn’t familiar with them and didn’t want to take time to find supporting information, so conflated them with the National Register, which he also mentioned.  Thanks, Tom!

      SECOND UPDATE: Alex DeParry sent out a press release announcing a new community meeting to display the revised designs.  Here is its text:

      A neighborhood meeting will be held at 6:30 PM on December 14, 2009 at the Ann Arbor Public Library in the second floor meeting room. Preservation architect John Dziurman will present our “Heritage Row” plan that has incorporated community input and comments received at our previous neighborhood meetings and one that also meets the Secretary of Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation.

      All seven of the existing houses will be rehabilitated and the existing streetscape will be preserved.  Our design for the rear of the site consists of three separate, free standing 3.5 story buildings similar in  scale to the “Washtenaw” apartment building located one block east on East William. Underground parking will be located on the rear of the site underneath the three new buildings. A plaza area will be  located behind the existing houses in the center of the site.

      THIRD UPDATE: The project is now called “Heritage Row”.  They have a website.

      FOURTH UPDATE: The Chronicle’s report on the roll-out of Heritage Row is here.

      FIFTH UPDATE:  The study committee has now recommended a historic district and set projected boundaries.  See the account here.

      NOTE:  An updated post (2011) is here.

      How F.A.R. Should We Go?

      September 29, 2009

      The Area, Height and Placement (AHP) revisions to Chapters 55 (Zoning) and 59 (Off-Street Parking) of the Ann Arbor city code have been under discussion for over a year.  They were apparently staff-generated (not as result of any public outcry for a change to our zoning ordinances).  Through this last summer, a number of meetings were held around the city where staff attempted to explain what the changes were expected to bring about.   The Ann Arbor Chronicle summarized the intent and provisions in an article that also drew a long comment thread.  As it notes, the revisions are intended to make the commercial and multifamily sections of Ann Arbor more amenable to Transit-Oriented Development (TOD).  The Ann Arbor Transportation Plan Update explains this concept in detail and it can be summarized neatly in one word: density.  The AATPU projects an increase in Ann Arbor’s population by 2030 of up to 20% (to a total of 124,085) and explicitly calls for high-density zoning to accommodate this growth.  (The plan also calls for some very adventurous transportation additions, some of which we are already hearing about now.)

      One of the ways density is achieved is by a striking increase of F.A.R. (Floor Area Ratio) in some zoning districts. F.A.R. is a ratio of how much of the buildable area of a parcel may be occupied with building.  So 100% F.A.R. would mean that a building of one story could occupy the full area within the setbacks.  Or a building of 2 stories may occupy 50% of the lot.  Or a building of 4 stories may occupy 25% of the area, and so forth.  Theoretically, one could legally build a “needle tower” up to the clouds if there is no height limitation in addition to the F.A.R. assigned.  The AHP changes as presented to the public had no height limitations in certain commercial areas (C3, Office [O], Office/Research/Limited Industry [ORL], and Research [R]).  F.A.R. was dramatically increased. For example, C1 (local business) was increased from 40% F.A.R. to 200%.   That would easily lead to 4-story buildings if only half of the lot was taken up with parking lot and lawn.  But C1 does have a height limit of 35′ (increased from 25′) or 50′ for large lots, so apparently had a height limit of approximately 5-6 stories.  Heights for some multifamily districts were increased from 40′ or 60′ to 120′.

      Since the areas subject to these changes (see map)  are often near residential areas, one concern expressed at public meetings was the absence of a height limitation, and another one was the possible impact on adjacent areas.  The staff seem to be trying to address those concerns.  Indeed, the staff has kept prodigious records of public comment, including the comment thread on the Chronicle. The effort to obtain real public input appears to be sincere.  At the August meeting of the AHP Advisory Committee (appointed by council to work with staff on the public rollout), it was decided to make an all-out effort to give the populace a true opportunity for serious interaction on the proposal.  Tuesday night is devoted to small-group sessions, with a facilitator at each table.  October 7 will be a chance for each speaker to address the entire audience.  Anyone with a serious interest in the subject can attend both meetings; it should result in a good understanding of the changes at a minimum.

      Of course, the larger question is why this? why now?  It appears that we are ramping up to a vision of a much bigger city where redevelopment of commercial and multifamily areas at the edges of the city is eagerly sought.  The market and the economy are going to have to change quite a bit for that to happen.  I propose a test site: let’s redevelop the Georgetown Mall. The recent news about the mall means that we are going to have a concrete and asphalt hole in the fabric of Ann Arbor, right on a major thoroughfare.  It would make an excellent spot for a test of the Utopian vision (borrowed from Seattle in most cases) of a dense mixed-use development with charming shops and coffeehouses below, urban residences above, parking sequestered out of site, tree-lined sidewalks, and easy access to transit with a diminished setback to the street.  Maybe we could even get Kroger to come back.

      UPDATE: The public meetings are over.  Now we’ll see what the staff do with all the comments.  The project webpage includes videos and maps that are detailed ward-by-ward.  If any proposed changes are adjacent to your own property, now is the time to look it over.