Archive for the ‘Trends’ category

Feeling Blue – Ann Arbor and UM Football

November 1, 2014

What is the future for University of Michigan football and how will it affect Ann Arbor?

Photo Services, Kim Haskins

Ann Arbor’s life is inextricably bound up with the University of Michigan.  By “Ann Arbor’s life”, I mean both the daily course of life as it is lived here and the economics of the city and its citizens.  Of course many UM staff and faculty live here (though that is an increasingly small fraction) and we all enjoy the range of cultural events available through the University, not to mention the occasional stroll across the Diag.  The yearly influx of students affects both housing affordability and the mix of businesses on State Street.  But the most impactful aspect of the UM that touches life here may very well be UM football.  Thus, when UM football is in crisis, Ann Arbor is in crisis. The recent history of UM football, which has now culminated in the resignation of Athletic Director Dave Brandon on October 31, 2014, can fairly be said to be a crisis.

I became aware of the importance of UM football on the day of my introduction to Ann Arbor.  We arrived for a house-hunting tour on a cold November day just after a fairly big snowfall.  Our realtor picked us up at the Sheraton just after breakfast.  His first act was to take us to the UM Stadium.  At the time, access was fairly open, and he hauled us up the stairs to look over the expanse of field and bleachers.  Waving exultantly to indicate the magnificence of the view, he invited us to take part in the wonder.  I was cold (since I possessed no real winter clothing), slightly jet-lagged after a transcontinental journey from Southern California, and stressed by the prospect of house-hunting and moving.  My response was impatient.  He was greatly offended and scarcely spoke again for several hours.

This was in the golden age of Bo Schembechler, and one of our new neighbors was such a football fan that our whole block reverberated on home football days.  There were banners.  The front page of the Ann Arbor News was completely occupied by football news and three-inch headlines led by “BO”. To this non-sports fan, all this was quite exotic.

Big Business

UM football continued to expand its profile and influence, even as its prowess on the field declined.  (Bo’s successor,  Gary Moeller, endured a couple of years being called “Mo” by the Ann Arbor News, but the team did not reach its previous heights.)  It has long been impossible to drive anywhere on city streets in the hours preceding a game, or to find a restaurant table on game day.  The stadium reopened in 2010 after an extensive renovation that included premium suites with a private elevator.   (These “skyboxes” elicited a protest based on the loss of egalitarian access to the community tradition.)  Two years ago, the City of Ann Arbor began permitting the closure of Main Street during football games.  The UM constructed an electronic marquee on Stadium that far exceeds size and placement permitted by Ann Arbor’s sign ordinance.  As described by the Ann Arbor News,

The marquee is indeed the largest of its kind in the Ann Arbor area: it stands 21 feet above the ground and is 27 feet tall and 48 feet wide. It runs 18 hours a day, displaying four promotional messages per minute. On game days it shows video starting four hours prior to the game.

One reason the UM football machine has been able to expand its footprint on the city has been its profitability, founded on its faithful fan base.  Joe Nocera, writing in 2010 about the stadium expansion in the New York Times,  noted:

Even if its football team has a string of bad years, it still has an immensely loyal fan base, it will still secure the financial rewards that come with being in the Big Ten and it will still fill Michigan Stadium every time the team plays a home game.

But that fan base has been badly eroded during the tenure of Dave Brandon, who was installed in 2010 as Athletic Director.  Brandon, who has been a CEO at Domino’s Pizza among other such high-profile positions, set out to exploit UM Football’s popularity for profit.  He made his intentions clear in an early statement (quoted here from Crain’s Detroit Business):

“We’re going to need to grow our revenues, we’re going to need to continue to find out ways to stimulate growth in our external revenue streams and maybe create some new revenue streams that afford us the ability to grow,” he said.

John U. Bacon has written for years about Michigan football with sensitivity and acute perception.  Bacon, in a column for the Ann Arbor Chronicle, described the practice of seat licenses (requiring an upfront “donation” for the privilege of buying tickets) and other changes that Brandon introduced to increase yield from the fans. He mentions that with his two seats, the cost is $1,700 (presumably for the season). He later identified the problems with the way fans were being treated and exhibited prescience in this June 2014 column for the Ann Arbor Chronicle:

This fall, Michigan is in danger of breaking its string of 251 consecutive games with 100,000-plus paid attendance, which started in 1975. Treat your fans like customers long enough, and eventually they’ll start behaving that way, reducing their irrational love for their team to a cool-headed, dollars-and-cents decision to buy tickets or not, with no more emotional investment than deciding whether to go to the movies.

There were many other grievances that will be detailed in the host of obituaries for this era.

I have been amazed at the trouble and expense that fans will go to in order to experience UM football.  Some drive a long distance.  They find parking ($20-$50), often arriving before 7:00 a.m. for a spot, or even pay to hire a party area for the perfect tailgate. There are anecdotal reports that people have bought downtown condos solely to have a place to stay on the 5-6 fall football weekends.  This willingness to spend has been a boon to Ann Arbor’s hospitality industry.  Hotels and restaurants may depend on those few weekends the way retailers count on Christmas. Clearly, that level of commitment and investment has been essential to the success of Michigan football.

The Concussion Issue

UM has had a miserable football season, with many games lost and worse, much critical comment about the quality of the play overall.  But the last straw was the treatment of an injured player on September 27, 2014.  (Timeline from Ann Arbor News)  Quarterback Shane Morris was seen to take a fall and behave shakily, with contemporaneous reports that he seemed to have trouble standing. But he was then sent back into play by coach Brady Hoke.  This scandalized viewers at the time, and the hue and cry only increased later.  At first, both Hoke and Brandon denied that Morris had had a concussion, but in a statement the next day (reported by Crain’s), Brandon acknowledged that Morris had “a mild concussion”.  The account only calls in to question the behavior of those charged with safeguarding the health of players, with evident poor communication at the field.

Concussions sustained while playing football have now been recognized as a serious medical problem.  The CDC emphatically recommends that concussed athletes should be removed from play.  Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (changes in brain structure) is now thought to result from repeated head trauma.  A number of former NFL players who suffered from various cognitive problems sued the NFL and were tentatively awarded a settlement.  But this has not satisfied the critics. There are now increasing numbers of calls to regulate football at all levels (Compendium of New York Times coverage).  There are also suggestions, even from lovers of the game, that it may be immoral to continue a game which results in a lower life expectancy for many players, with a high degree of risk for dementia or suicide.

Coinciding with this controversy is the increasing call for college football players to be better compensated, or to be able to join a union.  The NCAA rules maintain that these are students and are compensated by the football scholarships they are awarded.  But as this column by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar points out, the NCAA made billions last year, and coaches typically have salaries in the millions.

While these coaches and executives may deserve these amounts, they shouldn’t earn them while the 18-to-21-year-old kid who plays every game and risks a permanent career-ending injury gets only scholarship money — money that can be taken away if the player is injured and can’t contribute to the team anymore.

Students, Academics, and the Mission of the University

All of this calls into question the inherent fallacy of the concept of the “student athlete”, at least as the game is conducted today.  I don’t know whether there are any studies showing how many UM football scholars are able to attain professional positions apart from professional football itself.  In the past, football players for UM went on to often distinguished careers (Dave Brandon was himself in UM football back in the Bo Schlembacher days).  Given the intense training and extended season for football nowadays, it seems to be quite a lot to surmount.  The tradition of intercollegiate athletics comes from the “mens sana in corpore sano” ideal, in which one might be studying the classics on Thursday, play a game over the weekend, then back into the classroom or library the next day.  Many college athletics programs still adhere to this ideal, as students in various departments might participate in music or theater along with a major.  But it is questionable whether UM football still affords that flexibility.

It may be that the new UM President, Mark Schlissel, will be the person to lead a transition in the way the UM and its football program are joined.  He has sent signals about this conundrum since his arrival here early last summer.  He landed immediately in a controversy with the Regents over fireworks at the Stadium (a fight Brandon lost).  Here were his remarks at the time:

What I want to be sure of is that athletics exist in an appropriate balance with everything else the university does. Athletics isn’t part of the mission statement of the university. We’re an academic institution, so I want to work on the appropriate balance between athletics and academics.

I also feel strongly that the students who come here to be athletes – are students and that they have all the opportunities for education and to take advantage of everything that goes on here at the university, as well as pursue the sport that they love.

Dr. Schlissel is a true scholar (his field is the area of gene regulation in immunology, a very hot subject) and clearly has a view of the University in its historical context as a community of scholars, advancing the preservation and continuation of knowledge. Now the UM is positioning itself as a premier international research university.  There has been a lot of expansion, both within UM departments and in offshoots.  There are reputations to be made, and money.  There are thousands of academic careers to be advanced.  The UM has a collective interest in the highest standards and performance. There are other things happening besides football.

Schlissel is clearly struggling with the role of UM football in a thoughtful and careful manner.  Here is what he said in recent days after all the eruptions.

I think the sport of football and college athletics in general is certainly a matter of discussion and debate around the country. I’d like to develop clearer opinions. I’d like to work with our interim and our new athletic director to contribute to the process of evolution of college athletics in a direction that I think is more closely linked to the fact that there are academic institutions and students are here both for education and for the pursuit of sports they love. That’s as far as I’m able to go now.

He will have a great deal to reconcile.  There are the finances – the program took on a lot of expenses with the stadium renovation, and Brandon seems to have made a number of investments in anticipation of the continued growth in revenues. There are some very influential and motivated alumni who want to see the program continue.  First among these is Stephen M. Ross, who gave the UM $200 million last year.  This brings his lifetime donations to $313 million.  (So we now have the Stephen M. Ross Business School, and the Stephen M. Ross Athletic Campus.)

He’ll also have that great cloud of traditional UM football fans, many of whom are also alumni, to deal with.  I suspect that at times he can hear the massed sound of those beating hearts.  The passion is so great.

And then there are the business interests in the City of Ann Arbor.

Black September and October

A great deal of money flows into Ann Arbor during the home football games.  We’ve gotten used to it.  I am comparing it to Black Friday for retailers.  People rent their lawns for parking.  People work the Stadium in various ways, including the cleanup.  There are sales of memorabilia.  And the hospitality industry (hotels and restaurants) are usually up to full capacity.  But a bad football season can cause worries, as detailed in this article in the Ann Arbor News.    It quotes Mary Kerr of the Convention and Visitors’ Bureau (which is supported by the hotel industry via an accommodation ordinance tax) about the economic impact of the UM football season.  Most of the figures come from a study in 2007, which estimated that each UM home football game has an impact of $14.8 million to the overall economy of Ann Arbor.  A more recent study estimated that visitors to Ann Arbor associated with the UM (not clear whether they distinguished football and other sports from academic visitors) are responsible for $257 million in economic impact.  Obviously, UM football is an important asset from the viewpoint of those affected by the dollars spent here.

An Uncertain Future

Will UM football just go on as it has, with a better administrator and some minor course corrections?  Or will there be some real changes in the way the program relates to the University and, ultimately, the City of Ann Arbor? Can UM football escape the more global changes in the sport of football itself? The answers will doubtless result in some effect on our local community, whether or not we are individually interested in the sport itself.

UPDATE: This article on the Ann Arbor News site appears to be a rather comprehensive overview of the economics of Dave Brandon’s tenure as Athletic Director.

SECOND UPDATE: A couple of articles from Ann Arbor News indicate the difficulty Schlissel will have in reconciling academic concerns with Michigan football culture.  On November 10, he spoke at a UM committee meeting on the balance between athletics and academics.  On November 11, he found himself apologizing to the football coach, Brady Hoke.  Here are his official comments.

THIRD UPDATE: Coach Brady Hoke has been relieved of his position as of December 2, 2014, according to a statement in the University Record.   This followed yet another disappointing loss, to the Ohio State Buckeyes, on November 29.

FOURTH UPDATE: Amid speculation and fragmentary news reports that UM has offered an expensive contract to NFL coach Jim Harbaugh, the Detroit Free Press quotes a Forbes report that UM football is the third highest “valued” college football in the country. The basis for calculating the value is interesting: it includes “community value (which) is the economic impact generated by home football games”.

 FIFTH UPDATE: Mass jubilation has ensued over Jim Harbaugh’s hiring as head coach.  As this article from Crain’s Detroit Business describes, his early history was based in Ann Arbor and UM football, and he quarterbacked under the legendary Bo Schembechler.  But questions about the meaning of college football remain, amidst all the hype.  A thoughtful article in the New York Times analyzes the contradictions between the big-money position of college football and the academic setting in which it is played.

SIXTH UPDATE: The drumbeat of bad news about football and its role in cognitive problems later in life continues.  A recent study links football playing in childhood to discernible diminution in performance on a variety of tests.  In response to such studies, the NFL is sponsoring special workshops for parents, ostensibly to help their children reduce the likelihood of injury.  As this report from the New York Times describes,  it is important to the business of the NFL to keep a supply of young players in the pipeline.  But one lawyer who has worked with victims says, “Simply put, it cannot be made safe. Football is a concussion delivery system.”

SEVENTH UPDATE: Bad news about UM’s football program continues with a discouraging budget report.  Crain’s reports that the program suffered a major deficit last year ($7.9 million).  A big driver was the payouts to Coach Brady Hoke and Athletic Director Dave Brandon.  The bad season didn’t help.  UM fans are depending on a better year to come with the new coach.

New Local Food Page

March 14, 2012

Here are some new ideas.  Let’s grow our own food or buy it locally, preferably from small farmers and artisans, join a food cooperative, bake our own bread, learn how to cook without a half pound of meat per person, use a lot of fresh vegetables, make our own yogurt, cheese, pickles, jam, use lots of seasonings, often with ethnic origins, to make freshly prepared simple food delicious.

Oh whoops.  Those aren’t new.  That was my experience in the 1970s as a graduate student in Wisconsin.  We called it “pure food” or “natural food” then (the idea of “organic” was just getting wound up).  I read “Diet for a Small Planet,” spent some time volunteering with a group of people who formed a food coop (they drove a rickety truck to Chicago once a week to buy actual fresh vegetables, and got bottled milk from a local dairy), started a vegetable garden in a vacant lot behind my apartment, traveled to a small rural grocery to buy local cheese and meat, patronized farm stands whenever I could find them (Madison didn’t start a farmers’ market until about 1976), baked the bread, made the yogurt, the whole thing.  It felt real.  It felt organic in the classical sense.  We ate well on not much money.

So I was delighted to learn that all this was starting up again here in Ann Arbor.  Some will say it never quite went away, but it has a new lease on life with a new generation (and with the help of the previous ones; Al Connor, who helped start the People’s Food Coop in Ann Arbor, is still working on food policy).  I did some looking around in 2007 and wrote an article on the subject for the Ann Arbor Observer, “Meet the Locavores“.  Since then the Ann Arbor local food universe has expanded mightily.

I’ve revised and updated the page I have maintained on this subject, and The Local Food Page has a few useful links.  I’ll try to make it more comprehensive in the future.

Meanwhile, note that the Local Food Summit is on April 2 this year.  Better sign up if you plan to go.

Local in Ann Arbor: 2011

December 31, 2011

I’m not much for looking backward and don’t care much for milestones.  But there is some point, I’ll admit, to reflection on what has happened in the last year, if only to prepare for the next day and what follows. Now how best to  make sense of our recent history?  What made the year memorable from this blog’s perspective?  We’d surely not use the measurement that AnnArbor.com’s approach was to use page view numbers.  This produced a list of mostly sports-related stories, with a sprinkling of crime and tragedy.  Looking back at the year on Local in Ann Arbor, I had some posts I was really proud of but got relatively little notice, while others that got a lot of attention were not all that substantial.  Still, looking at the page view hits was instructive, and I’ve used them as a guide in this year-end review.

Honorable mentions go to posts from previous years.

Scott Trudeau (L) and Murph (R), enjoying victory ca. 2004; photo copyright by Griffin Reames, used with permission

Most irrelevantly accessed post: Ann Arbor Blogs: the Moving Finger Moves On, published in February 2010, is one of our top hits of all time.  This is not because of the brilliant writing or the subject matter (a requiem for Arbor Update), but because of the “porch couch” picture.  I get a search item for “porch couch” at least once a week, which pulls up this post with its picture.  Another example of how your history on the Internet never goes away – the student to the right, known here as Murph, is now a professional planner (Richard Murphy), whose image from 8 years ago is no longer very descriptive.  (The porch couches are now also history.)

Post which made the biggest splash and was most significant: The all-time top hit has been The Secret Plan for the Conference Center, published August 2009, which was the Ann Arbor area’s first report of a hotel-conference center proposal that had been quietly cooking along on back-office desks for over a year.

This post was the first of  a very long chain that recorded aspects of the fight over the Library Lot and what became known as the Valiant proposal.  The series, all of which has been listed on the Library Lot Conference Center page, was a major feature of this blog through 2010 and into 2011.  One of the top posts for this last year was Ann Arbor Conference Center: An Authoritative Study, where a study by a nationally-known expert on hotels and conference centers was made accessible.  The study did a pretty conclusive job of showing that the center would not be a good business risk.   The lengthy What’s in the Box (Compiled) summarized many posts analyzing the Valiant proposal as presented by the Roxbury report, which recommended this proposal for adoption.  But my favorite post is the inappropriately named And Why Are We Worried About It (Valiant LOI) which was drafted and named before a sudden rush of action on the City Council finally, as we were fond of saying, killed the zombie on April 4, 2011.  This post outlines some of the citizens’ campaign to defeat the proposal (the picture was on buttons that we passed out to oppose adoption of the Letter of Intent).

Photo by John Weise

Two of our posts on the Percent for Art program, Taxes for Art and Taxes for Art (III) were in the top 10 visited in 2011. These were an effort to support proposed changes in the Percent for Art program (that ultimately failed to gain Council approval).  The first one in the series laid out arguments, with references, as to why this program is illegal.

Another “top hit” was our piece called “Heritage City Place Row“, written just before the tragic conclusion to the years-long City Place/Heritage Row debate.  The seven historic houses are now only history and instead there will be a cell-block-like student apartment complex installed in the middle of one of our near-downtown neighborhoods.  This was one of the greatest failures of governance of the year.  There are many directions to point fingers, but I’ll just say that it is very sad for our town.

Of course, the two “townie” posts were very successful. What Does It Mean to be an Ann Arbor Townie?  was the top in page hits, with the political discussion The Council Party vs the Ann Arbor Townies close behind.  That’s what happens when I stray from the wonkiness.  Actually, when I began this blog, I had intended to have more pieces that were simply reflective, but events in Ann Arbor (and the politics!) have often driven the topics.  The Council Party piece, like most of my political posts, was written in defense of our embattled group of civic activists (whose numbers expanded greatly during the conference center episode) after an attack from one of The Powers That Be.

Central Area from city website; click for larger image

Central Area (click for larger)

One of my favorite posts did make the top 10:  Ann Arbor’s Suburban Brain Problem was a slow starter but has been getting continuous looks so that it was actually #5 for the year.  This was probably our snarkiest post and the sarcasm and sardonic humor may have confused a number of readers.  But it contains some serious information about the lack of open space or green space not just in the downtown, but the entire Central Area.  (Ironically, the largest green area in the map is Fuller Park, now threatened with a parking structure.) It was written in reaction to a DDA partnership meeting in which the object was to explain why no new parks are needed in the downtown because we have the Palio parking lot (sorry, snarkiness just sneaks in there).

Click for larger (WALLY route)

Finally,  three transportation – themed posts were near the top.  The post WALLY Hitting the Wall came in just under Parking and the Limits of Downtown and the Fuller Road Station: It’s All About Parking tagged along a little farther down.  The WALLY post and the Fuller Road Station post were two of those I consider to be references, with many diagrams and documents attached.  They are part of the major theme that will be going forward in the next year, namely the substantial transportation initiatives currently underway.   The whole long story will be indexed on the Transportation Page.

Of course, these were by no means the only important issues for Ann Arbor.  This is a blog, not a newspaper.

Speaking of which, if you have soldiered through to read all this, you care about events in our city and want the full story.  So now is a good time to write a check to support the Ann Arbor Chronicle.  Or if you prefer, donate online.  (They make it easy.)  Where would we be without the Chronicle’s, er, chronicling all the actions that are affecting our lives?

So now on to 2012.  I can only echo Tiny Tim and say “God bless us, every one!”  We may need it.

UPDATE: According to WordPress (they send a yearly summary), “porch couch” was one of 5 top searches leading to this blog.  The other 4 were variations on my personal name or the blog title.  There must be some commercial opportunities in there somewhere.

Transition Exits Ann Arbor

October 3, 2011

A little more than two years after Transition (a worldwide movement) introduced itself to Ann Arbor,  the local group has announced (via its email listserv) that it is disbanding.

After much deliberation and collective soul searching, we are writing to let you know that the initiating team of Transition Ann Arbor is officially disbanding.   We believe it is important to announce this widely so that we can release the effort into the hands of others, should there be a future groundswell of committed individuals.  

Some challenges we faced were the usual ones, such as personal time constraints and life circumstances. But there were other challenges that we didn’t anticipate, such as the fact that the Transition model has proven difficult to implement in a city the size of Ann Arbor without staff or a strong ties to an existing 501c3 nonprofit.  

We are excited to see the growth of Transition-related efforts in the Ann Arbor community and region. We continue to believe that there is a role for an umbrella organization that strengthens these efforts and develops cohesive plans, action groups, programs, and messages that help our community prepare for the long emergency–the impacts of peak oil, climate change, and economic instability. Unfortunately, we don’t have the necessary resources (or person-power) to make this happen. We have a wealth of accumulated knowledge and lessons learned from our efforts over the last 2 years, including the beginnings of an energy descent action plan. To improve future organizing, we would be happy to share our insights and resources with anyone interested in picking up similar work.

As might be understood from this statement, Transition was founded to support the worldview of those, such as former Environmental Commission chair and mayoral candidate Steve Bean, that we in Ann Arbor (the country, the world) are facing a future singularity in which conditions of life will change drastically.  (The reference to the “long emergency” is a direct reference to the dystopian classic, The Long Emergency by James Howard Kunstler.)  Transition Ann Arbor has been especially notable for its “reskilling festivals” in which such skills as sock darning, keeping bees, and other domestic crafts are taught.  According to the announcement, these will continue under the guidance of their organizer, Laura Smith (lolo730@yahoo.com).

A core concept that Transition and similar efforts are based on is “peak oil”, a belief that the world economy and our very way of life will shift dramatically once the cost of energy increases because of dwindling oil supplies.  The data for peak oil are fairly unambiguous and (discounting the possible effect of shale oil) it appear that the point at which oil supplies begin to dwindle is in the next decade (by 2020).   Lester Brown and the Earth Policy Institute have been promulgating news of this and related impending disasters (most having to do with resource depletion of various kinds) for years.  Yet there are doubters and deniers like Michael Lynch (though these arguments are rebuttable).  Problem is, a worldview in which a collapse is imminent definitely undercuts the current growth paradigm and interferes with business as usual.  We’d really rather not be bothered as long as it looks as though things will go along much as they have since most of us can remember.

We all got a bit of a wake-up call with the economic cataclysms of 2008 and 2009. Though Kunstler has not changed his views or his predictions,  what seemed so imminent during the few months following the crash of 2008 now seems to have retreated a bit over the horizon.  It’s a little hard to get excited over darning your own socks when socks made in East Asia are still available at discount stores at pretty decent prices.  Admittedly, lots of people are out of a job, but gas prices seem to have stabilized.  And though food prices have gone up a little, we can still get most of everything we want and the expensive restaurants in downtown Ann Arbor seem to be doing a booming business. This means that choosing “local food” and making your own still appears to be just that—a choice.

Since one of my own interests and concerns is community food security, I was glad to see that Transition Ann Arbor is passing along its modest treasury to Growing Hope.  But otherwise we are left with pale washed-out “sustainability” efforts like the Ecology Center’s 350.0rg  and the UM’s “M Planet Blue“, which basically tinker around the edges with time-honored environmental fixes (all good).  It’ll perhaps be a little while longer before we have a group in Ann Arbor that really sounds a singular alarm.  If that is going to be you, you are invited to contact Jeannine Palms (jeannine@wetmeadow.org), one of the organizers and a longtime community activist.

In the New Year, Charity Towards All, With Exceptions

January 1, 2011

The Ann Arbor Chronicle capped off its year with an essay on panhandling. This sent me off on some reflections about the whole charity and giving thing, especially but not entirely with regard to panhandling.  So please bear with a slight diversion from my relentless march across the Library Lot.

First, some personal experiences.  Though I usually ignore panhandlers, here are a few times I was caught.

1. Cart man One day a year or so ago, I had just loaded my car with groceries from Kroger and was heading, somewhat tired and dispirited (a Michigan drippy gray day) to put away the cart when a white man of middle years stepped out and respectfully asked if he couldn’t put that away for me.  I accepted with gratitude, but when he had my cart in hand, he asked for money.  He said “I’m hungry”.  I suggested that we should go together back into Kroger and buy the wherewithal for a sandwich.  He said he could eat better and cheaper at McDonald’s.  At this point, rather disgusted, I pulled out a couple of dollars, whereupon he said “I have a friend”.  While I was considering this, a Kroger employee stepped up and warned him off.  Apparently he had been making a career of such approaches and they had posted someone in the parking lot.

2. Implied threat Some years ago my husband and I were cutting across the UM campus from State Street to the South University area when a young very tall black man suddenly appeared and demanded “money for gas”.  It was evident that no was not an answer, so we forked over several dollars and escaped.

3. Piteous Several years ago my husband gave money to a panhandler on State Street.  She was an older white woman who stepped up to us with a pitiful expression and a bleated “Money for foooood!” appeal.  Later she was featured in the Ann Arbor News as someone who was living on a retirement income and had been able to supplement her income nicely in this way.  She was not starving.

4. Performance artist Over a decade ago I was walking south on Detroit from Zingerman’s when a black woman in her 40s approached me with a distraught look and a frank appeal for help.  She told a confused story about her son in Grand Rapids and her need to get a bus ticket to see him, but she had to get to a friend who would help and she had no transportation.  I took her to my car, parked nearby, and drove her to a house on the west side, but she asked me to wait.  She emerged to say that her friend was not there or had no money.  So I was driving her toward the bus station when she said “Do you have any bottles (to sell)?  I truly had no money with me so I drove to an ATM and withdrew $20, then dropped her at the station.  She kissed my cheek with a “God bless you” and I drove away with a tear in my eye.   Later I read in the Ann Arbor Observer that she had approached a number of people in the general Kerrytown area, even going into office and commercial buildings, and had conned quite a few of them.  She was very good.

(Note: I include the race of the individuals because that is part of what we react to when confronted by a stranger.  I am not making a statement about any group.)

So why do we give money away?  What are sometimes called “charitable donations” fall into a number of categories.

1. Because we feel obligated (social pressure) I’d say that many political and religious donations fall into this category.  I’ll give to a candidate whom I support on the principles, but often also simply because I’m expected to.

2. Simple self-interest Some nonprofit organizations fulfill a goal or need that we hold personally.  For example, when I give to a land conservancy or an environmental organization, it is because those things matter to me personally.  And many donations are literally a ticket to opportunity.  For example, by giving to the Michigan Theatre or the Matthei Botanical Gardens/Arboretum, I get information on events and discounts.

3. Value received Some donations are earned because of entertainment value or social events.  Lots of charitable fundraisers are based on this principle – eat dinner with interesting people!  Listen to music!    Or individuals provide the entertainment value through performance or sheer personality.  I’ll always give to buskers because they bring me joy.  (Wish they were legal in downtown Ann Arbor, have not figured out why not.)  And Shakey Jake became a phenomenon in his own right, beloved by many.

4. The greatest of these is charity I believe that true charity stems from our sense of common humanity, empathy, and compassion. This is a phenomenon also referred to as social altruism and it is thought to be hard-wired in us.  Even little children display concern when another person seems distressed.  It is, in my opinion, one of the finer aspects of being human.

So here’s the problem with panhandling.  It manipulates and distorts this natural empathetic impulse to help another. By doing so, it may influence our learned behavior toward others and diminish the natural empathy that we each feel toward another in need.

Consider my experiences.  OK, the campus experience was more extortion than request, but it had the unfortunate effect of reinforcing the stereotype of young black males as threatening.  Too many such experiences and it is difficult to respond to another such individual with a free open feeling of common humanity.

In each of the other experiences, there was a cynical manipulation of social feeling.  Cart man appeared to be doing me a favor (an apparent altruistic act) which helped to establish a social connection.  That was then exploited.  Piteous pretended real need when she was really apparently just supplementing a decent income.  And the Performance Artist very skillfully worked on my empathy to establish a deep human connection.  (I’m considered fairly bright, but imagine driving a con artist to your ATM!)

Is it right to exploit another’s altruism?  I don’t agree with Tate Williams of Camp Take Notice, quoted in the Chronicle story to say that we are all panhandlers.  Yes, in ordinary human interaction we ask others to trust us and help us in various ways, but that trust is a precious and fragile thing.  Panhandling for money that is not really needed to support life is in a sense an abridgment of that trust.  I believe that one of the problems in our country today is a loss of trust in and empathy for others, especially those who are not like us. False demands foster cynicism and distrust.

And yet – we must support the needs of those whom we (perhaps euphemistically) call the less fortunate.  How can we do this without being conned and manipulated?

Here’s my solution: Give as generously as you can afford to local agencies that provide services for basic survival and well-being.  My personal choices are Food Gatherers and the Shelter Association.

Food Gatherers is a highly effective organization that has become a major part of our social safety net.  I’ve participated in studies they did on hunger and have seen some of their operations. You can be sure that your donation is used to its very best outcome.  (And as nice as it is to donate a few cans of food, a check is best.)

The Shelter Association of Washtenaw is a coordination center for many services that aid the homeless and near homeless.  At the Delonis Center, they offer hot meals, health services, mental health and substance abuse assistance, and many other direct services and referrals to non-residents as well as temporary residence for a few lucky souls.  (I was one who wanted a larger shelter originally, but oh well.)

I feel better since I sent in my year-end checks.  It’s not too late for you to do the same, though you’ll have to wait till 2012 for the tax deduction.  Happy New Year.

Our Shining City on a Hill

March 11, 2010

About the University of Michigan transportation forum of March 10, 2010, and what it said about the relationship of the UM and Ann Arbor.

The University of Michigan presented a thought-provoking look into its future on March 10 (see here for AnnArbor.com’s coverage of the event) by combining a student project with presentations both from vendors of alternative transportation and by people who are actually operating such systems.  But the evening also demonstrated how the UM is really another city or state, not part of Ann Arbor at all.  How will its future affect that of our city?

I love going onto the UM campus.  The very air is different, as though of a different ionization state.  The campus sparkles and is thronged with students preoccupied with the bigger issues.  The buildings are monumental.  And when we townies are allowed to participate in some of its events or lectures, the result is so stimulating.  Of course some of this almost somatic reaction of mine is due to my own history as a child of a college professor who became a college professor.  Until I moved to Ann Arbor, I was always part of a college campus in some role or another.  But I think that even those without this personal history can feel the magnetism and power of this institution and this campus.

It is almost as though the UM were part of an alternate reality.  Let’s suppose that we are still living in the Michigan of before September 11, 2001.  Our manufacturing sector is still strong.  The tech boom hasn’t yet faltered.  And local and state governments still have plenty of money for infrastructure and programs, enough to make grants and other investments in the future. The Federal budget is even in surplus!  In that auditorium, breathing that air and listening to the student presentation, I could almost believe.

As described by the forum’s moderator, Jim Kosteva, the forum was forecast by UM President Mary Sue Coleman last fall (a video interview is here and a discussion is here) when she said that she wanted to get in the cutting-edge, best thinkers on transportation.  She also acknowledged (rather perfunctorily) an interconnection with the city on transportation issues.  In the interview, she also says that the UM began to seriously consider the Fuller Road Station (also called the Fuller Intermodal Transit Station, or FITS) when they acquired the Pfizer campus on Plymouth Road, now called the North Campus Research Center (NCRC).  (The city webpage has a list of documents describing FITS;  the Ann Arbor Chronicle reviewed one of the public meetings about the station.)

Acquisition of the NCRC has nearly completed a necklace chain of campuses that make UM cut a swath through the heart (slightly displaced to one side) of Ann Arbor.  Beginning with the East Medical Campus in Ann Arbor Township at the corner of Plymouth and Earhart Roads, to the NCRC on Plymouth Road and then to North Campus (between Plymouth and Fuller Roads), the Medical Campus (Fuller Road to near Geddes Avenue), the Central Campus (near downtown, extending down State to Hill) and then to the Athletic Campus (between Main and State, and parts on South State), there is a nearly continuous crescent of UM property and facilities.

The students taking Industrial and Operations Engineering 424 were tasked last fall with applying their training to constructing (in concept)  a transportation system that would unite these campuses.  They worked in several teams to apply their training (which was not previously in transportation) to come up with fully-fleshed plans.  The class voted to use a monorail system for their plan.  (This eliminated several other possible choices, including buses, commuter rail, streetcars, and autonomous vehicles.)   With the monorail (an elevated system), the entire system would be traversed in a 24 minute round trip, with 9 stops.   There would be three high-capacity stations, at Fuller Road Station, CC Little in Central Campus (this looked to be compatible with recently announced plans for a transit center in this area), and Pierpont Commons on North Campus.  That would leave six lower-capacity “intermediate” stations scattered along the route.  All was very tightly calculated and scheduled, with different teams coming to similar estimates of time for the route.  Some dollar estimates were provided; the monorail system to cost $434 million (construction) and the stations $31-50 million.  It was stated that operating costs for the bus system could then be reduced.  (Different teams provided estimates for their own sections but there was no unified budget presented.)  One group did explore funding options, which included Federal funds: formula funds ($1 million), New Start money ($225 million) and another grant program (something about electrical transmission)for $10 million.  They estimated $421,000 annually from advertising and $1-2 million from parking revenues at NCRC (using the current parking lots, which require no new investment).  Mention was made of a “funding gap” with the AATA – apparently to pay the cost of the UM’s agreement with the AATA for connection with city buses.

Students were the major expected customer class, and a number of them were interviewed for the study. But the team also looked up zip codes for UM employees and found that most of them live north and west of Ann Arbor.  Accordingly, they made some regional transportation recommendations, including a connection between AATA buses and WALLY, a new freeway exit at Nixon Road, and a commuter shuttle bus between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti using the old Norfolk Southern railroad right-of-way.

The rest of the program including some eye-opening technologies and some examples of functioning systems.  The Cleveland Bus Rapid Transit system was impressive.  (Michael York, who spoke on behalf of the Euclid Corridor, noted that it has “train-like” properties and that it required total reconstruction of its route. ) The Minneapolis Hiawatha Line is a classic light rail application.  There were also funitels and automated people movers by Bombardier (their representative was so well prepared that he showed a stop at FITS on one slide).   My favorite of all was the Unimodal Personal Rapid Transit vehicle (a gondola-style maglev).  These typify what you would expect to see in a city of the future – what we used to call the 21st century.

But all these dazzling notions were brought down to earth when public comment began with a couple of speakers from the Center for Independent Living inquiring about access for the disabled. (One of the forum presenters pointed out that AATA provides paratransit service but the gondolas include a special ADA vehicle that is dispatched on request.)  Most of the public were speaking from the viewpoint of residents of Ann Arbor rather than UM students or employees.  Alice Ralph asked about the social impact of an elevated system vs. a ground-based system.  She pointed out that much of the talk about density in Ann Arbor over the last few years has focused on the notion of a vibrant street scene.  What is the impact of removing people to a system that isolates them from the street?  She concluded that “as a double community, we should talk about that”.  Another speaker, who identified himself as a “citizen who is part of the silent majority”, said that the point seemed to be only how to connect the UM corridors.  He pointed out that a lot more people use Plymouth Road and State Street besides UM-related travelers.  He asked whether the passenger numbers that were being used to plan the system included other consumers in the community and challenged the planners to look a little further – “is it good for the community?”.  Kosteva responded that “we are in partnership with the DDA and AATA to do signature corridor analysis and fully recognize the importance of the broader impact” (on the community at large). (He was referring to the Ann Arbor Connector Study; the Ann Arbor Chronicle’s comprehensive history is here.)  Richard (Murph) Murphy asked at the end how the planning was addressing different groups of users.  Part of the system will be carrying hospital visitors and much of it campus traffic.  How will the technology differentiate between those (and, I will add, other users)?

Peter Allen’s comment was one of his typically scintillating overviews and futuristic visions.  Allen nearly threw off sparks as he noted the gleaming future with the North-South rail (WALLY), the “game-changing” East-West rail (the Ann Arbor – Detroit project being managed by SEMCOG), the need to take into account the “bike agenda” and “walking agenda”, and the expected increase in Ann Arbor’s population as a result of the 5 years of analysis following the Calthorpe report.  He said that we would be adding 20,000 to 30,000 people to Ann Arbor’s population and reminded us that he teaches TOD (transit-oriented development) and spoke of the “sidewalk excitement” around the NCRC, with people living, shopping, and recreating in the new areas created by a state-of-the-art transit system.  But he had a somber assessment of the likelihood that Federal funds would be available to pay for the new system.  Instead, he said, we should look to the “excess” land around the stops and use it to create income to pay for the transit.  In other words, create dense development along the system line.  (Allen and his students have been advancing proposals for heavy development associated with FITS.)

Allen’s comments highlighted an uncomfortable inference I made months ago.  It appears that much of the city of Ann Arbor’s planning has been guided by the needs and plans of UM.  As I reported earlier, the city has engaged with the UM to plan FITS at a final estimated cost to completion of $40-45 million.  The memorandum of understanding was adopted by council in the summer of 2009.  But it appears that the major point of both FITS and the connector study (discussed in my earlier post)  would be to enable the UM transportation system.   As I also noted in another post, the city has engaged in a number of planning exercises that seem to be pointed at establishing TOD along “signature routes” as defined by the Ann Arbor Transportation Plan Update.  Two of the important signature routes are those highlighted in the UM plan, Plymouth Road and State Street.  Apparently, some invisible hand has been guiding city policy to fit the UM’s long-term plans for some time.  When the Area, Height and Placement public meetings were being held in the summer of 2009, one city planner was pushed repeatedly to explain why the pressure to pass these changes seemed to be so intense, given Ann Arbor’s current slow population increase.  He finally acknowledged that it was partly the UM’s expected employee growth. Put the UM’s expansive vision of its future together with the local wish to make a source of wealth available through development, and you have TOD and signature routes.

But what is the benefit to the city of Ann Arbor of these visions, increasingly being clothed with flesh?  When I say “the city of Ann Arbor”, I mean the civic body itself (the government and all its agencies), its residents, and its local businesses, as well as that group identity that makes us a community.  First, if these transit plans can be realized in any substantial part, will they be usable by the community at large?  The picture presented on Wednesday night was mostly that of an internal connection within the UM family of campuses.  Will advanced technology and signature routes make the life of the non-UM employee who lives in Ann Arbor any easier or better?  Will a UM monorail system (for example) even be accessible to non-UM personnel?  (To my knowledge, only UM students and employees can use their bus system.)

The second concern is the cost to our city and transportation budgets of realizing this vision.  The way FITS is materializing is troubling; we have committed to a fair proportion of its costs, and the funding thus far has come directly from our own infrastructure accounts.  But it seems unlikely that in its earliest form (as a mostly UM parking structure), it will benefit city residents.  Meanwhile, we read depressing headline after headline.  No more mowing in the parks.  Police and fire personnel being laid off.  Loss of trash removal a possibility.  Stadium Bridge is falling down. Our city grows shabbier and more and more down at the heels.  (I learned in January why my street is no longer cleaned after leaf pickup.  The street cleaners were shifted to another fund and they don’t do that kind of cleaning any more.  So I have leaf compost blocking the spring runoff.)  How do we afford supporting the UM’s needs or wishes, especially since they don’t pay taxes even on the new NCRC research facilities (which apparently will be hosting start-up companies).

All this seemed rather petty when sitting in that fine auditorium.  The UM’s vision makes a lot of sense from its own viewpoint.  It is an internationally recognized university with a far-reaching vision that is being realized successfully.  Our poor little shabby town has become something of an awkward appendage to this shining city within a city.   And even as a momentary guest in it, briefly I could believe.  But I still live here in the other city.  I hope that someone is watching out over us, too.

————–

Note: the phrase, “a shining city on a hill” has a long history.  My picture of it was always as a dazzling promise of wonders to be aspired to, but where all may not enter in.

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 AnnArbor.com’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.