Update: having calmed down a bit, I’ve annotated this post to reflect a more charitable and complete reading of Tom Whitaker’s comments. Those updates are in red.
As a daily transit user, I was delighted to see the board of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority (AATA) vote to adopt the comprehensive “Smart Growth” strategy for long-term planning of the Ann Arbor region’s public transportation network.
As is my wont, I took the time after reading the Ann Arbor Chronicle’s coverage of the AATA board meeting to read the comments. I almost laughed out loud when I read Tom Whitaker’s remarks regarding the AATA plan — not out of delight, but out of astonishment.
Whitaker writes of Washtenaw Avenue:
TOD (transit-oriented-development) might be a good idea if you are colonizing the moon… Applying it to existing healthy business strips like Washtenaw is simply a waste of resources that could be applied to other critical public needs…
I’m fine with studying cost-effective ways to improve the flow of traffic and increase pedestrian safety, but that’s entirely different than trying to completely reinvent/rebuild this auto-centric strip as a second downtown…
My first reaction to this passage was:
When the last time Tom Whitaker boarded one of the crammed-to-overflowing #4 buses during morning and afternoon rush hours? When was the last time he traveled by car eastbound on Washtenaw between 4 and 7pm, or in the several hours following a UM football game? When was the last time he tried to bike between, say, Tuomy Street and Whole Foods, or beneath the US-23 underpass? When was the last time he tried to cross the street on foot between Pittsfield Avenue and Arborland Mall?
Upon re-reading later, I noted Whitaker does favor improving traffic flow and pedestrian safety, the very issues I raised. I remain puzzled by his antipathy toward TOD on Washtenaw, which is in no way a greenfield. The Ann Arbor region is going to continue to experience population growth in the next decade, and those people are going to have to go somewhere; why not retrofit an existing commercial strip to accommodate them? Moreover, he seems to be setting up a straw man of the AATA’s plans, reacting with paranoia to what seems to me to be well in keeping with current best practices in urban planning. Nor is TOD inevitably destined to be “a waste of resources,” diverting funds from the public coffers.
Washtenaw Avenue is an ideal candidate for transit-oriented re-development as it is the main artery between Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor and consequently heavy with commuters five days a week. Now, for Whitaker, “(a) dismal commute,” as he terms the standing-room-only misery AATA bus commuters like myself frequently experience, is “one incentive for more people to live in or close to the real downtown”:
Supposedly, increasing residential density in the downtown core was the goal of all the research, discussion and planning for the last 10 years. Some say it was intended to be a complementary strategy to the Greenbelt.
Yet so far all we have is one bankrupt condo building and a bunch of student high rises. Public money is being put toward civic buildings, parking structures and potentially a hotel and conference center instead of the original goal of creating a welcoming and livable downtown core. Why not curb our ambitions for our suburban outskirts…
This is ironic, in light of Whitaker’s steadfast opposition to a large residential development that was proposed in his neighborhood just south of “downtown proper” which allegedly ends at William Street. (If you browse some of his many comments at AnnArbor.com you can see that his opposition to development does not end with the City Place/Heritage Row proposals.)
Whitaker is correct that there has been at least one high-profile disaster — I’m thinking of Ashley Terrace — and that the crop of recent developments have been geared toward students. I acknowledge that the Germantown Association has the right to advocate for their perceived interests as property owners, though I think the city’s zoning rules they cite in their favor are ridiculous and backward-looking. I also share his scepticism about investing public money in the proposed downtown convention center. But what exactly does he propose for a “welcoming and livable downtown core,” and how does he propose to fit more people close to downtown?
I am a resident of Pittsfield Village just south of Arborland Mall, a new first-time homeowner (as of last summer), and a daily commuter by the #4 bus line, and I can attest from personal experience that it is virtually impossible to buy even the most modest home anywhere north of Stadium or west of Washtenaw for less than $100,000; the Village offered by far the most affordable homes west of Ypsilanti with access to frequent bus service to my workplace. Tom Whitaker, one of the most outspoken of the Germantown Neighborhood Association, one of the most vocal critics of high-density development near downtown Ann Arbor, is arguing we should all move
As a resident of Ann Arbor who can not afford to shell out 40% of my monthly income on a home, nor wishes to pay $900/month* to rent one of the plethora of mediocre apartments (as he notes, catering primarily to students) available in the neighborhoods surrounding downtown, it is hard for me not to construe Tom Whitaker’s remarks as elitist.
It is hard for me not to read them as the expectation of well-to-do homeowners in downtown Ann Arbor that everyone live within walking distance of that area, while refusing to allow development that would make it affordable to move there.
It is hard for me not to take his remarks to what seems to be the underlying conclusion: that Ann Arbor should deny the opportunity for reliable, frequent public transit to us who lack the means to live adjacent to downtown.
OK, on second read that is a bit of a stretch. But I firmly maintain that, given Ann Arbor’s current zoning and development policies, improved public transit to the very few affordable areas of Ann Arbor will benefit the community. It will do so by reducing motor vehicle congestion and will help limit auto-dependent sprawl as the region’s population grows. The Smart Growth scenario seems like it will help get us there.
Mr. Whitaker, I’ve never met you personally, but if you end up reading this, please do not hesitate to respond if I misconstrue your intent.
*I know for any readers from coastal metros $900/month for a modest one-bedroom apartment may sound like a steal, but it is pretty high for anywhere in the Midwest outside of Chicago, and certainly by far the highest in Michigan.