Category Archives: Ann Arbor

Back from the dead (The ghost of Christmas present)


It’s been since April 26, the datestamp tells me, that I last blogged here.

There’s been so much change, both in my life and in the communities I live, over those 8 months, too much to really cover here.  Some of the change has been really awesome (though it appears many of my fellow Ann Arborites would dispute that).  Some of it has been really, really awesome.  I got most of what I wanted this year, politically speaking — more than I could have hoped for.  Even the skyline of Ann Arbor has morphed rapidly this year, as a sequence of student high-rises sprouted from the southeast at Forest & South U north and west to William and Washington streets.  As I type this, a new development is finally going up on a long-abandoned brownfield across from Whole Foods on Washtenaw, one that will spawn perpetual Carmageddon and force UM workers to begin to re-evaluate their commutes.

In my own personal life, I went through a short but shattering break up, followed by a series of at least 3 minor nervous breakdowns.  Cumulatively they made me start to re-evaluate the status quo I’d built for myself since I came to Ann Arbor in 2008.  I still really love in Ann Arbor in some ways.  You don’t need me to tell you it’s a special place.  I think I could be happy here if circumstances were different.  But the closest thing I have to family in Southeast Michigan is in Detroit.  I hate living alone and, as my boo the incomparable Luther Vandross noted, a house is not a home.

I’m in the process of maybe/possibly/probably moving back to Detroit, in the process divesting myself of my cosy and charming condo* in Pittsfield Village (a delightful and welcoming community I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to anyone).  So the focus of this blog, insofar as I bother to update it, might start to shift a bit to reflect that.

For those of you who left me in your Google Reader during the long hibernation of this blog, I hope you continue to follow along, give me a piece of your mind, and direct me toward worthy objects of commentary.

*PS it’s an end unit AND updated with 2 bedrooms less than a 10-minute walk from the #22 or #4, so you really ought to just hurry up and make me an offer already.

Ann Arbor’s (lack of) affordable housing

The city of Ann Arbor had another quixotic forum on sustainability on April 12.

As reported by the Ann Arbor Chronicle, Ann Arbor Housing Commission executive director Jennifer Hall oriented attendees to the context of trends in the city’s housing costs:

Ann Arbor’s owner-occupied housing market is getting more expensive compared to other areas nationally. According to data from the National Housing Conference, in 2011 metro Ann Arbor (Washtenaw County) ranked as the 87th most expensive housing market among the nation’s 209 metro areas, Hall reported. The median home price for the Ann Arbor metro area was $162,000. Just two years earlier, the median home price was $136,000, and metro Ann Arbor ranked 132 among the 209 metro areas, she said…

There’s a growing need for more affordable housing in this community, Hall said. A study conducted by the Washtenaw Housing Alliance showed that in 2004, 2,756 people in Washtenaw County reported that they had experienced homelessness. In 2010, that number had grown to 4,738…

Hall also observed that as people search for affordable housing and move further away from where they’d prefer to live, they often increase the amount they pay for transportation to get to work or to necessary services, like grocery stores. That increased cost often isn’t factored in to their housing decisions, she noted, and the more distant location can end up being more expensive overall…

It often seems like the average senior citizen in Ann Arbor is among the city’s most vociferous opponents of densification.  Consequently, it was refreshing to read the commentary at the meeting by former Ann Arbor City Councilmember Eunice Burns, who “described how she’d sold her house to her daughter and son-in-law, and now lives in the home’s garage that was renovated into an apartment for her”:

But because of existing zoning constraints, only a family member can live in an accessory dwelling, she noted – no one will be able to use the apartment when she’s gone. The city’s ordinances need to be revised to allow for more types of dwellings like this for a wider range of people, Burns said…

She recalled that when the city tried to change zoning for accessory dwelling units in the past, it had met with resistance…

The derailed effort that Burns mentioned would have changed the city’s zoning to make it possible for non-family members to live in accessory apartments.

Wendy Rampson, the city’s planning manager, told the audience that the concern had primarily been about neighborhoods close to campus becoming too densely populated…

Another attendee, UM planning professor Doug Kelbaugh, noted

The carbon footprint of those living in the suburbs is dramatically higher than for urban residents… Increasing urban density would have the single greatest impact on reducing that carbon footprint – saving energy, the amount of land that’s used for development, the amount time people spend commuting, and more.

He underlined the central irony of this forum, which is how the city’s efforts toward sustainability can be canceled out by its land use regime:

Kelbaugh said he loves the city’s parkland, but he sometimes thinks there’s too much of it – what the city really needs is more people living downtown. Perhaps parkland is being over-prioritized.

This thought often occurs to me when I drive or bike through the city’s northeast quadrant — the part of town roughly bounded by Huron Parkway to the south and Maiden Lane to the west.  Much of this area is occupied by UM’s North Campus, which provides a beautiful pastoral setting but is, environmentally, a disaster, and increasingly a nightmare for the university from a logistical and transportation standpoint.   Plymouth Road’s commercial strip and the residential neighborhoods to its north are isolated from the rest of town by the finger of countryside.  Huron High School’s rural setting likewise precludes walking to school for most of its students, forcing them to drive or take the bus, increasing traffic congestion and needless costs to the public school district.

Returning to previous speakers’ theme of affordability,

Regarding sustainability and affordable housing, Kelbaugh said the lowest-hanging fruit to address that issue is accessory dwellings. The previous attempt to revise zoning and allow for more flexibility in accessory units was shot down by a “relatively small, relatively wealthy, relatively politically-connected group,” he said. “I don’t think it was a fair measure of community sentiment.”…

There cannot be too many people living downtown, Kelbaugh concluded – the more, the better – and Ann Arbor is far from hitting the upper level of the population it can sustain.

I was reminded of the response of frequent Chronicle commenter Rod Johnson to another recent article on that site concerning a new development off South Main Street:

I’m generally pro-density downtown, but I have to hope that 618 S. Main falls through. It’s just so out of scale with the rest of the neighborhood, just like the Moravian etc. were. I’m not sure exactly where my intuitive boundary of downtown is, but it’s certainly north of Madison.

Acknowledging the aesthetic preference for keeping the neighborhood “at scale,” I would think there’d be a trade-off in the form of additional property taxes & spending at nearby businesses from the residents at 618 S. Main.  It’s easy to forget there are opportunity costs to arbitrarily confining denser development within what is traditionally designated as downtown.

As I’ve often said before, the goal of housing affordability in Ann Arbor continues to be undermined by incumbent homeowners and other residents who may not even live  near downtown, but whose aesthetic and driving preferences  lead them to rigidly cling to the status quo.  Solutions like relaxing the restrictions on accessory units could permit greater density while preserving the scale and historic built environment that preservationists love.  But an outspoken lobby already considers downtown too “congested,” who profess a desire to maintain a “vibrant Main Street” while somehow getting rid of all those pesky humans who keep it vibrant and help businesses there stay open.  (I would encourage them to relocate to downtown Detroit, where they can enjoy the emptiness and ample parking they strive for.)

This fear-driven mentality is what advocates for housing affordability and environmental sustainability are up against.

Why I sometimes ride in the sidewalk

As I’ve noted before, I commute by bike in warm weather.  I take Washtenaw Avenue, which has no bike lanes, from my home all the way up to the Medical Campus.  Because of the aforementioned lack of bike lanes, the high speed limits, and the heavy traffic on this road during my commute hours, I ride mostly on the sidewalk along Washtenaw, contrary to the official state guidelines.

I understand the reasoning behind the League of Michigan Bicyclist’s rule that cyclists should ride in the road, because for various reasons, it’s generally unsafe to ride in sidewalks.  I try to comply with this rule in high-density, slow-traffic areas like downtown Ann Arbor, or in Detroit where the roads typically have plenty of empty lanes.

But I think it’s stupid to say bikes shouldn’t use the sidewalks on stretches of road like Washtenaw which have heavy traffic and high speed limits.  Yes, drivers are supposed to share the road, but on the few times I’ve rode in the street I’ve feared for my life.  Even when following the rules of the road, halting at red lights (which I always do) and sticking to the right hand lanes, I’ve encountered hostility from drivers who want to kill me.  Meanwhile, for most of Washtenaw, the pedestrian presence on the side walk is pretty light.  I slow down and look carefully for drivers whenever I reach an intersection, and halt if I’m not absolutely sure a driver will yield right of way.  When I do get stuck behind a pedestrian, I slow down and go around them, usually on the grass.  I don’t care what the official guidelines are.  They are simply not appropriate for the particular conditions of the route I take, and I don’t see how mindlessly following them makes any sense.

When & why road diets might not work sometimes

In my last post I questioned Ann Arbor City Councilman Mike Anglin’s votes on a couple of transportation-related items at City Council’s April 2 meeting.

For the vote on parking minimums in the Downtown Development Authority’s district, Dave Askins helpfully summarized Mr. Anglin’s objections in a comment.  Meanwhile, the Washtenaw Bicycling and Walking Coalition shared a link to the an AnnArbor.com story on the proposed road diet for Jackson Road.  Out of curiosity, I clicked on the link and scrolled down to see what the site’s commenters were saying.

I’ve found the commenters on AnnArbor.com, as with most other mainstream news sides, are predominately right-leaning in their politics, which in turn carries with it a bias toward single-occupant driving and against alternative forms of transportation.  As I anticipated, there were plenty of commenters who, like Mr. Anglin, opposed the road diet for various reasons.  The strongest argument against was one I hadn’t considered — namely, that this stretch of road is a bus route, so traffic would no longer be able to pass on the left in either direction when the buses stopped, as they do frequently.

Depending on the frequency of the bus, I thought that was a pretty reasonable objection.  While I ride the bus myself, I drive Washtenaw Avenue often enough to understand the significant delays drivers experience when driving behind a bus.   It turns out the Jackson route, the #9, only runs every half hour during peak weekday & Saturday traffic hours, and only hourly on Sundays.  On this schedule, a road diet would probably be disruptive to 9-5 weekday commuters, but minimally so for drivers during the rest of the week.

Conceivably, this could be a feature of the road diet rather than a bug:  that some rush-hour drivers, frustrated by the delays, would be able to switch to alternate routes or schedules, reducing the congestion.   Even more likely, the addition of the bike lanes could make people more likely to consider cycling along this route and leaving their cars at home.   However, if you are the kind of person who spends a lot of time commenting on AnnArbor.com (i.e. an older person who considers himself a “conservative”), you are also likelier to depend entirely on driving to get around, and hence will not be convinced that you’d benefit from these alternatives.

An alternative to bike lanes that popped up on the comment thread was the idea that cyclists should ride on the sidewalk in the absence of a bike lane.   I’ll devote my next post to recounting my own philosophy on that topic.

Zoning, the handmaiden of Ann Arbor NIMBYs

The Chronicle recently reported on the denial of a rezoning request on a parcel of South University between Washtenaw and Forest Avenues.   The piece ignited another spirited comment thread on the city’s zoning policies.

The general sentiment  in Ann Arbor, based on what I gather from reading public commentary at meetings as well as online comments to news stories, appears to be that the city’s zoning is a sacred covenant between the city and residents.  Exceptions to the zoning of a particular area violate that covenant, and provoke  reactions such as these (paraphrased by Mary Morgan):

“All of the planning commissioners spoke in support of the current zoning, saying that the community had reached a hard-won consensus that was not to be overturned lightly.” “(E)veryone relies on zoning to be stable, not changed because of someone’s preference.” “To make a change now for the adjacent property would be harmful to… any sense of integrity that the city might retain – integrity that a developer would rely on to do business in this town.” “It’s time to adhere to the rules that were established.” “Why aren’t these zoning decisions respected?… Why are they being challenged?”

While I am sure that these sentiments are representative of homeowners & other residents in the older neighborhoods near Ann Arbor’s central commercial districts, I personally don’t share them (as some of my readers may recall).  Nor do I see any reason that Ann Arbor’s current zoning should be treated with such reverence.  Let me enumerate a number of concerns I have with Ann Arbor’s current approach to zoning, and the philosophy that underlies it.

First, it tips the scale of private property rights over to the side of the neighbors, and away from the rights of the owner of a particular parcel to do what they wish with that parcel.  It thereby codifies the existing neighbors’ perceived self-interest (or, more succinctly, their NIMBYism) permanently into law, without regard for the interests of potential future residents or property owners.  (By the way, there’s nothing that enrages Ann Arbor residents more than being called NIMBYs — is there an equally succinct but more politically correct term I should be using?)  As in, I live here, and I have the right to tell everyone else in my neighborhood what they can and can not do with their property.

Ann Arbor’s zoning also privileges the status quo to a degree that I find irrational.  If the city’s current zoning policies had existed in, say, the 19th century, it would still be a village of a few thousand people, and the university would have to transport the tens of thousands of its students, faculty and staff in from surrounding areas.  (Which is what it increasingly does today.)

As a commenter on Megan McArdle’s blog observed,

I grew up in a small vacation town, it was amazing how residents fought every kind of new development… even though almost every resident had moved there from somewhere else.  They basically wanted move there, then fight tooth and nail to pull the drawbridge up behind them.

Privileging the status quo also correlates with Ann Arbor residents’ “small is beautiful” ethos, which its large Baby Boomer population seem to have carried with them from their formative years in the 1960s:

Snyder asked what had happened to the Ann Arbor that had been a true university town – with a sprawling campus and trees, as typified by the Arboretum and Burton Tower. When and why had the city and university decided it was better to build up? he wondered. But he quipped that UM’s buildings have managed to keep below the low-flying cloud height. Questions like “How big is too big?” and “How tall is too tall?” keep being redefined, Snyder said.

Homeowners view density as a threat — something requiring a buffer to protect them from the unspecified evils that it apparently entails:
To rezone the parcel would take away the buffer between Forest Court and the densest D1 development of South University, (one homeowner) noted.
Another is paraphrased as calling “(t)he property…  the textbook definition of a buffer area”; a third explains that “Residents don’t want to live next to Main Street” while a fourth “argued that any attempt to characterize the neighborhood (in which the parcel in question is located) as primarily student housing is wrong.”  (On the contrary, based on my experience living a couple of blocks south of this property a few years ago, I can attest that it IS PRIMARILY STUDENT HOUSING.)
Mother Jones writer Kevin Drum ventures his own theory about the widespread antipathy to density  (h/t McArdle):

 I don’t care what you say your objection to a new building is, about 99% of the time the real objections are noise, congestion, and traffic. That’s it. Everything else is just cover.

While residents are careful never to say it, the city’s zoning policy also has the implicit perceived benefit of keeping out the undesirables.

The advantages of preserving the status quo are subjective to a certain extent.  In Ann Arbor, outside the core areas surrounding downtown and Central Campus, that status quo is 1950s-vintage Euclidean zoning, strictly segregating residential and commercial uses, encouraging single-family housing with setbacks over multi-family dwellings, and prioritizing the needs of drivers over those of pedestrians and other non-car commuters.   It is a land use model that still appears to have plenty of loyal fans.

But Ann Arbor’s zoning has a number of ill effects that are less easily debated:

  • By reducing density, it hinders methods of transit besides the car;
  • It limits the potential patronage of businesses in the area;
  • It reduces the amount of property taxes the city could collect from additional residents and/or businesses that are crowded out by the zoning;
  • It reduces the access of families to walkable neighborhoods, which exacerbates obesity (as children get used to riding in cars rather than walking/biking to their destinations), and costs taxpayers more (in school busing).

I seem to be the only person who thinks this is bad apart from the developers.  The rest of the community seems to love being able to exercise veto power over changes to their neighborhood.  I am very gradually coming to accept that I’m in the extreme minority among Ann Arbor residents in my opinion.  Permanent residents seem to want the community to remain small, medium-density,  and low-rise.  As long as they can tolerate the property taxes that accompany the city’s high home prices, we can expect the status quo to continue.

But if that’s the case, the city should probably stop shoveling money into environmental and sustainability initiatives that are undermined by its own zoning policies.  It is ironic that the Chronicle story that inspired this post was accompanied by a report back on a land use and sustainability forum the city held on February 9.  Encouraging greater density is by far the most significant investment in sustainability the city could make, but it is an investment Ann Arbor residents are fighting tooth and nail.  What is the point of these investments when they are undermined and counteracted by the city’s own zoning?

PS:  As always, I could not have written this post without the efforts of Chronicle staff.  Please consider donating to the Chronicle here.

What are you thankful for about your city?

I’m hijacking Aaron Renn’s (Urbanophile) idea for a blog post to re-purpose here.   He asks, “What are you thankful for about your city?” and writes:

For Chicago, I’m thankful for the positive changes that have been coming to the city in Rahm’s administration. I was no Daley hater, nor do I agree with everything Rahm’s done, but clearly there has been progress on a number of fronts: 8,000 new jobs downtown announced, bringing in Gabe Klein to run CDOT, putting together a budget that doesn’t rely on gimmicks, etc. We’ll see how things develop from here, esp. as Chicago is a city and region with massive problems, but so far so good.

What I’m thankful for in Ann Arbor & Detroit:

  • Tree Town:  Mary Morgan & Dave Askins, founders of the Ann Arbor Chronicle, who’ve labored for many years to build an alternative local news source.  The greenbelt millage; the strong (for a metro its size) transit system;  the generally tolerant citizenry; the tremendous support for the arts;  the natural beauty of the area.
  • Motown:  The amazing riverfront, showcased thanks to the efforts of the Riverfront Conservancy.  That so many of the city’s architectural treasures remain intact and occupied.  The way the Feds have been cleaning house in city and now county government ever since 2008, giving Detroiters the chance for less corrupt, more accountable governance.  The grassroots leadership of people like State Rep. Rashida Tlaib & Transportation Riders United Executive Director Megan Owens, who have advocated for the disadvantaged in their city.  The reporting of M. L. Elrick.

Leave a comment to share what you’re thankful for in your city.

Occupy, Take 2

After weeks of drought on this blog, this week saw a sudden blossoming of commentary from you all, some of it on posts I published quite a while back.  I am thrilled to see folks are still reading and delighted by the care & thoughtfulness you’ve put into your comments.

Murph, as usual, has not shied away from challenging me.  A lot has changed since I posted about Occupy Wall Street a few days back, beginning with Mayor Bloomberg’s decision to evict the Occupiers in the middle of the night, a decision that was shocking in its brutality, its stupidity, and its short-sightedness.  (You’re not going to read any more defenses of him by me.)  So in light of those rapid changes, I thought I’d take the opportunity to consider some of Murph’s points on my OWS post.

Murph writes:

I see Wall Street as a fairly singular site in the American economy and iconography–Occupy Troy or Occupy Southfield might be closer analogues to OWS than Occupy Detroit, in terms of their relation to the seats of financial power in the region (or Occupy Orchard Lake, or Occupy Franklin, in relation to the beds of financial power), but a couple of points in the other direction:

1. Occupy Troy wouldn’t have the same PR impact as Occupy Detroit. Nobody knows where Troy is. Occupy is as much about message as about geography–outside of Occupy Wall Street itself, the Occupations are more significant in visibly showing national support for OWS than they are about literally encamping the financial districts.

Every passing day serves to strengthen the idea that “Occupy is as much about message as geography.”  Needless to say, after Bloomberg’s raid on Zuccotti Park, OWS no longer even has a space to permanently occupy.  Chicago’s Occupation never did, but it’s survived nearly as long.  I think the occupation of specific physical spaces was a temporary phase in the evolution of OWS, helpful in establishing basic networks and relationships, but temporary nevertheless.  Bloomberg’s raid and similar actions at other camps have forced the Occupiers to begin to figure out what their purpose is besides holding on to the spaces they occupy.

With a nimbler, more mobile Occupation, I don’t see why the Occupiers couldn’t take their show on the road to venues like — to use Murph’s examples — Troy or Southfield.  I think those places are poor comparisons, though.  Part of what makes the Occupations so visible is that they are located in dense areas that see a fair amount of daily foot traffic, near downtowns.  Were the Occupiers to Occupy the Suburbs, I’d call out Birmingham as the ideal next place to land:   lots of foot traffic, lots of shoppers and other affluent visitors.

If anything, it would be more courageous to attempt to Occupy a place like Birmingham, because unlike wildly permissive Detroit, I expect its elected officials, citizenry and police force would be far more hostile and restrictive, closer to Bloomberg than to Bing.   An Oakland County Occupation would be braver and more disruptive than a Detroit Occupation.

Also, as far as PR impact, you could move the encampment to a place like Troy and still call it Occupy Detroit, because it’s still part of the Detroit metropolitan area.  After all, Chrysler can get away with running ads flaunting their Detroit street cred from all the way out in Auburn Hills, no?

Murph continues,

2. In many cases, the national Occupations are “being the change they wish to see in the world”. Occupations are feeding and clothing the poor and the homeless–it’s not that the Occupations are *creating* issues of “crime and sanitation and infection control”, it’s that they’re taking those issues, which already exist in those cities, bringing them into the light, and attempting to address what pieces of them they can. (Salon has a good piece on some examples of this, here:http://www.salon.com/2011/11/17/ows_inspired_activism/

I don’t think the national media has done a great job of highlighting these activities, so I appreciate the reminder.  Having said that, central cities like Detroit have long been warehouses for the poor and homeless, and human services providers focused on helping the very poor are disproportionately located there, letting suburbs off the hook of having to deal with poverty.  So apart from its ability to attract media attention — which is nothing to sneeze at, for sure —  I don’t understand how the Occupation does anything to change that status quo.   Detroiters are the last people in this country who need a reminder of what crime and deprivation look like.

In closing, should Occupy Detroit remain in the city proper, I have at least one suggestion of an alternate site.  Today, I stumbled across this update on Occupy London:

They’ve taken over an abandoned building owned by banking giant UBS, where they’ll set up a “bank of ideas” and “and open the disused offices and meeting rooms to ‘those who have lost their nurseries, community centres and youth clubs due to savage Government spending cuts,'” reports the Telegraph. A dozen occupiers broke into the building last night…

An abandoned building owned by an embodiment of the mercenary 1%.  Reading this, it occurred to me: Why, I think we have plenty of those to choose from in Detroit.  When Occupy Detroit has to vacate Grand Circus Park, why doesn’t it occupy, say, the Michigan Central Station?

Just a thought.