Category Archives: Land use

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.

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.

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.

Squelching

I trash Richard Florida a lot on this blog, but I like a passage from his column this week at the Atlantic:

Jane Jacobs identified almost exactly the same dynamic when I asked her some years ago why only a handful of places pioneer innovations and unleash the creativity of their residents, while most are content to sputter along, stagnate, and even die. “Each and every community,” she told me, “is filled with lots and lots of creative and innovative people.” The trouble is with a small core of people she dubbed “Squelchers,” who are instinctively opposed to doing anything new or different. Unfortunately, these people are often a town’s business and political leaders. You’ve probably seen them in action; maybe you’ve even bumped up against them yourself.

Only a handful of places are endowed not only with a great research university, but a culture that tolerates and actively encourages risk-taking.

Florida gives Tree Town a shout out, noting, “There are cities in the once-dying Frostbelt — such as Ann Arbor, Madison, and even Pittsburgh — that have built new knowledge and creative economies around their great universities.”

I think this is important because, from the view on the ground here, Ann Arbor is full of squelchers.   Most of our area’s success stems from the constant influx of brilliant people coming in from all over the world to work and study at the U.  But they are counterbalanced by a vocal segment of long-time residents who fear the city’s increasing density and congestion, and a micromanaging city bureaucracy that attempts to regulate everything within its grasp.  Recent examples abound, such as the planning advisory committee that failed to relax the city’s restrictions on multi-family dwellings, or the zoning that prevented a small business from expanding the range of merchandise it sells, to cite two.

There’s been a lot of discussion in the urbanist blogosphere recently on the role of community input on planning and development, catalyzed, I think, by Ryan Avent‘s The Gated City (which I will eventually get around to reading and posting about).  Alon Levy has had a couple of excellent posts on the topic.   Mary Newsom summarized the key question with particular succinctness:

(W)hat if the public really doesn’t want any development at all? A survey from The Saint Index found that 79 percent of Americans said their hometown is fine the way it is or already over-developed. Some 86 percent of suburban Americans don’t want new development in their community. The anti-development sentiment is the highest in six years of Saint Index surveys.

So if you try to involve the community and listen to what they want, do you end up with a plan that forbids growth? How smart is that? Should planners heed community wishes, even if they know what the community wants is impossible or imprudent?…

The challenge for planners, it seems, is first to educate people on the repercussions of their choices and then, to show them choices for other ways to develop: tree-lined urban streets, with shops and shop windows on the sidewalks, to choose one example. But the planners can’t stop there. Step Three has to be to make sure the supporting ordinances and standards require the good and disallow the bad.

Having seen the effects of Detroit’s sclerosis on that city, I am vigilant for the signs of similar sclerosis that are emerging in Ann Arbor.  Indeed, while it suffers from its own inertia in many ways, I see Detroit benefiting from an increasing sense of adventure, flexibility and openness among its residents in terms of land use and planning — attitudes lacking in Ann Arbor.  Channeling community activism and local governance in a positive and productive direction, away from the reflexive squelching that increasingly prevails, will be one of the great challenges facing Ann Arbor in the 21st century.

DDA hikes parking rates in downtown Ann Arbor. Catastrophe ensues.

Today, I saw this headline and exclaimed, ‘Can you wait for the whining to start on the .Com?’

!!!!

I have pondered at some length the (f)utility of grappling with the peanut gallery in the AnnArbor.com comments sections.  I decided it was worth it to address the responses to this particular story here at the blog,  A) because they provide a representative sample of the kinds of (misguided) arguments people make in favor of free parking, B) because here I get to fully develop my case without having to post rebuttals every 5 minutes, and  C) because some of these people richly deserve to be made fun of.

One of the opening salvos concerns the ever-popular canard that charging for parking is bad for a business district:

xmo at 3:05 PM on August 31, 2011

Thanks to the ANTI-Business City Council, who appoints the members of the DDA that are trying to kill business in Downtown Ann Arbor. Business owners please remember these people when you vote in November!
Business is already hurting and now you tell the customers that its going to cost them more to shop Downtown?

Hmmm, let’s compare downtown, which charges for parking, and, say, Arborland, which has vast amounts of free parking.  Which seems to be doing better?

Xraymoo at 3:02 PM on August 31, 2011

Between the potential of getting a ticket for not yielding to a pedestrian that is “approaching” a cross walk and the increase of meter enforcement I may end up bypassing the Ann Arbor downtown area all together. In my opinion I would much rather find a resteraunt that has plenty of free parking out front in a surrounding community than worry about whether or not I have enough change for a parking meter.

If your dining at the IHOP on Ellsworth reduces the amount of time I have to wait for a table at Afternoon Delight, I think I can handle it. Win-win.

But wait: it turns out charging for parking will not only drive people out of downtown Ann Arbor — it will drive them all the way to Oakland County:

Tom at 5:30 PM on August 31, 2011
Hmmm, thanks to A2 DDA Royal Oak, Ferndale, and Clawsen are looking like great spots to visit. Rocheser should be more a value with the new DDA A2 proposals. For a closer venue how about Plymouth?

Not so fast, Tom:   Don’t Royal Oak, Ferndale or (nearby) Birmingham charge for parking til 9 or 10 at night?

A2JD at 3:15 PM on August 31, 2011
Birmingham doesn’t charge at all for the first two hours of parking in their structures. That makes a lot more sense to me if we’re trying to continue attracting people to stores and restaurants downtown. Combine the parking increases with a city income tax, and you have the perfect recipe for encouraging all non-University businesses to leave the city.

I actually might agree with this person re: the income tax, but let’s not muddle the waters.  These prodigies are having a hard enough time keeping up.

BobbyJohn at 3:18 PM on August 31, 2011
I just parked on Main Street in Royal Oak. The cost was 50 cents an hour . Yes, ~ 1/3 of Ann Arbor’s rate. That is the comparison to be made.

You can tell.  No coincidence that Ann Arbor’s downtown is ~1/3 as successful as Royal Oak’s.   True story.

Fine, we’ve established there are differences in rates & enforcement hours between municipalities. Seattle charges $2.50/hour for the top. Parking in Chicago’s Loop was $4.25/hour as of last year.  See also.

vicki honeyman at 5:03 PM on August 31, 201

where do you get the idea that birmingham and royal oak downtowns are doing “pretty well”? have you noticed the increased empty storefronts over the last 5 years in both those cities? they are NOT doing well!

I am certain the increased empty storefronts are entirely due to the cost of parking.  Nothing at all to do with the decade-long Depression southeast Michigan is emerging from.

Besides, you can’t compare us to those places:

Chip Reed at 3:26 PM on August 31, 2011
Birmingham, Royal Oak, and Ferndale are all part of a larger area than Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County. It is a rather different situation.

In fact, Ann Arbor is totally unique:

Bill at 4:45 PM on August 31, 2011
@Andy you can hardly compare Seattle and Chicago to Ann Arbor. I’ve been to communities larger than Ann Arbor that are trying to build their downtown areas and offer FREE parking in city lots.

OK, I can’t compare Ann Arbor to RO/Birmingham/Ferndale because they are suburbs of a larger metro area. OK, I can’t compare Ann Arbor to Seattle or Chicago because they are bigger. But it is OK to compare it the other (unnamed) cities which offer free parking?

Meanwhile, I don’t think I’ve ever had to pay for parking in Ypsilanti.  We all know how much better Ypsi’s downtown is performing than Ann Arbor’s.

Charles Weaver at 3:55 PM on August 31, 2011:

At some point people are going to stop patronizing downtown businesses. There is elasticity in the demand.

Exactly, all those residents in Kerrytown and the OWS and Germantown, and all the UM students, and all the people who work downtown are going to stop patronizing downtown businesses and go out to Chelsea or Manchester for lunch.

This is the real kicker.  It’s not even an across-the-board increase.  No one is commenting on this, but one-third of the existing meters will actually see a DECREASE.  Read the article:

Meters that consistently have monthly earnings in the top one-third of all meters in the system would be increased to $1.80 an hour, Pollay said. Meanwhile, those meters in the middle would stay at $1.40, and those at the bottom would be reduced to $1.

“Closer in, people pay more. Further out, people pay less,” Pollay said, describing the proposal as a chance for the DDA to help activate the downtown.

The ones they are raising prices on are the ones with the most demand; if somebody isn’t willing to pay the extra 40 cents an hour (again, this is metered, not long term parking), why can’t they park in the middle range meters and (God forbid) walk an extra block or 2?

tim at 5:29 PM on August 31, 2011

Pretty soon it will be 10 cense a minute—– A2 already has a parking problem downtown, I don’t even bother to eat downtown on the weekend or when the students are back. Sure would be nice if all those great restaurants would move out to Westgate.

Ten cense a minute, just like those old Sprint ads.  You know, with the cost of parking, I just can’t figure out why all those businesses haven’t moved out to Westgate yet.  Could it be that the cost of parking is negligible for a couple who is already dropping a hundred dollars or so on dinner & drinks at Pacific Rim?  Or that Blimpie Burger does better business right next to the captive consumers of the UM student ghetto than it would on the edge of town?

Could it be that the proposed change makes no difference at all to the thousands of people who already choose to walk, bike, or take the bus downtown?

The more people who live in or near* downtown = the more people who couldn’t give 2 shits about the hourly rate going up 40 cents at a few meters.

I’ll give these people credit:  they are right to a certain extent.  There are many times I choose not to dine downtown. The cost of parking is usually less of an issue than the hassle of getting around by car downtown.  But there’s a reason for that: Downtowns are meant for walking, not driving.

You whine about paying for parking. You whine about the traffic congestion, which free parking only exacerbates. You whine about those pedestrians and stop lights and cross walks and bikes that get in the way of your car.

You don’t actually want to go downtown, that’s fine. You have plenty of other places with lots of free parking in Ann Arbor.  In fact, you have the more than 700 square miles of the rest of Washtenaw County to drive and park to your heart’s content.  Hang out on Carpenter or Maple or Eisenhower or Plymouth.  Leave us with the precious couple of square miles of central Ann Arbor where people can still live without a car without being a second-class citizen.   But if you choose to come downtown, leave the attitude of entitlement at home.

I realize I’m fighting a losing battle with the brilliant readership of AnnArbor.com, who generally want to go back to Ann Arbor circa 1950.  But if you, like me, think the DDA is making a smart move, contact them to let them know & thank them.

*On second thought, they really need to stay within the official boundaries of downtown.  Any development south of William is going to give Tom Whitaker a heart attack.

School busing in Ann Arbor

Ann Arbor Public Schools’ proposed cuts to busing has provoked lots of parental whining on AnnArbor.com.

Raising the cost of getting kids to school is one of the many costs of sprawl that are not factored in when our elected officials subsidize development in outlying areas.   Nobody ever thinks school busing might get cut next time there’s a downturn.  The homebuyers don’t think about it when they buy the place, and the realtors never suggest they think about it.

Families planning to have kids would do well to recall this story when they start looking to buy a home.  Lots within the city may be smaller, the homes older, more modest & more expensive, but at least there are sidewalks so your kids don’t have to walk in the street.

Livin’ in a walkers’ paradise?

After almost two weeks of negligent blogging, I figured a short post beats none at all.  Kaid Benfield’s urbanist-themed posts at TheAtlantic.com have been a welcome alternative to Richard Florida’s vapidity of late, and he’s been lavishing lots of love on metro Detroit.  He recently highlighted Tree Town’s increasingly famous net-zero house on the Old West Side, as well as the Heidelberg Project.  Another post steered me to WalkScore’s rankings of the “most walkable” large cities and neighborhoods in the US.

According to Walkscore’s analysis, Detroit proper is #22 among the nation’s 50 largest cities, between Omaha and Houston.  Its suburbs, however, are Michigan’s most walkable communities.  Hamtramck and Ferndale take the cake; the Woodward corridor in southeast Oakland County is revealed as the real urban heart of metro Detroit, with Birmingham and Royal Oak also landing in the top ten.  #3 — Madison Heights — raised my eyebrow.  Walkscore’s algorithm does not account for the subjective aesthetics of streetscape;  while John R and Stephenson Hwy may not be glamorous, they are crammed with retail, grocery stores, car mechanics and other commerce.  Tree Town and Ypsi and my hometown Bay City all fall in the top 10 for Michigan as well.

New York, San Francisco, Boston, and Chicago dominate the list of of the 300 most walkable neighborhoods (“walkers’ paradises”) in the U.S., somewhat predictably.  But there are some Sunbelt surprises:  Orlando makes the list, as do multiple ‘hoods in Dallas and Sarasota (at least twice!)  By virtue of their pre-auto age cores, nearly every large city in the Northeast and Great Lakes has at least one walkers’ paradise, no matter how struggling or blighted (see Buffalo, Cincinnati, Dayton). And it’s evidence that cities can be rich in walkable neighborhoods without rail transit.  As federal austerity and local infighting make prospects for rail in Detroit and Ann Arbor ever dimmer, it is instructive to take note of Seattle, which until very recently lacked much rail service but which nevertheless boasts numerous walkers’ paradises.

According to Walkscore’s ranking, we Michiganders don’t have any “walkers’ paradises,” but if you actually search “Midtown Detroit” you’ll find a walkscore of 91, comparable to walkers’ paradises like Chicago’s Lakeview or Washington DC’s Columbia Heights.   Any address in downtown Ann Arbor does even better, with a walkscore of 92, comparable to Chicago’s Andersonville and other cities in the #180-200 range of the rankings.  (The problem appears to be that Walkscore thinks “downtown Ann Arbor” is somewhere in Burns Park).

I actually emailed Walkscore about this puzzle and got the following very prompt response:

According to our 2011 rankings, Midtown is the top-ranked neighborhood in Detroit with a Walk Score of 85. See:www.walkscore.com/MI/Detroit/Midtown.

If you enter “Midtown Detroit” in a free search, Walk Score calculates a score for a central point. The score of 91 is for that specific point (85 Selden St, Detroit, MI), whereas the score for the whole neighborhood is 85. Try clicking on the neighborhood tab (to the right of the Commute tab) for a full report on the area.

Sorry if that was confusing! Let me know if you have any other questions.

Now THAT’s customer service.