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.

A few transportation policy updates

The theme of the day is state and local transportation policy, specifically focusing on roads, cars, and bikes.

STATE POLICY:

First, Todd Scott at M-Bike.org alerts cyclists to a couple of poorly conceived bills introduced in Michigan’s Republican-controlled state House:

First, House Bill 5300 would transfer funding from the current Michigan Transportation Fund (MTF) to the Commercial Corridor Fund (CCF) over an 8 year period. The MTF and CCF distribute funds to counties, cities, and villages. The MTF requires 1% of the funding to be spent on non-motorized facilities like bike lanes and sidewalks. The CCF has no such requirement.

So rather than remove the 1% requirement in law, legislators are simply creating a new fund without the requirement and shifting the money… (I)t has been a long standing goal of the County Road Association of Michigan to remove this requirement.

Todd writes of the second bill,

The current road funding is generally distributed based on the miles of roads. House Bill 5303 would change that to distribute funding based on motor vehicle miles traveled or VMT.

Counties and cities that require people to drive more and longer distances will be rewarded. There will be a financial disincentive for counties and cities to promote public transit, biking and walking as they’ll receive less money.

Forecasts from MDOT show the city of Detroit would see some devastating funding cuts as a result… The City has already testified against this change.

Ironically enough, the bill’s sponsor is former City Councilwoman Alberta Tinsley-Talabi.

I’m less than surprised than Todd about Rep. Tinsley-Talabi, who was one of Kwame Kilpatrick’s reliable supporters and, along with Martha Reeves & Barbara-Rose Collins, one of the dimmer bulbs when she served on the City Council.

Todd concludes,

We recommend you contact your state representative and state senator to let them know you oppose removing the 1% requirement and oppose distributing road funds according to vehicle miles traveled.

These bills have been out for more than a couple months now. We can’t afford to keep sitting on the sidelines.

ANN ARBOR:

Turning to local politics, Ann Arbor city councilman Mike Anglin notably dissented from his colleagues on two automotive-related votes at Monday’s city council meeting.

According to the Ann Arbor Chronicle, he was joined only by Councilwoman Jane Lumm on one, “a request to the Michigan Dept. of Transportation to convert the segment of Jackson Road between Maple Road and South Revena from four traffic lanes to three”:

Benefits of the lane conversion cited in a staff memo accompanying the resolution include: (1) safe deceleration in the middle lane for left turns; (2) elimination of lane weaving; (3) uniform speeds and the resultant traffic-calming effect; (4) reduction in number and severity of crashes in a number of categories; (5) potential extra width for bicycle lanes; and (6) potential creation of additional marked pedestrian crossings.

The memo mentions several successful 4-to-3 lane conversions in Ann Arbor: South Main (Ann-Arbor Saline to Eisenhower); Platt (Packard to Ellsworth); Packard (Stadium to Jewett); Huron Parkway (Nixon to Plymouth); West Stadium Boulevard (Seventh to Pauline); and Green (Plymouth to Glazier Way).

In the second, he was alone in voting no on a change to downtown parking regulation:

At its April 2, 2012 meeting, the Ann Arbor city council approved the policy by which the minimum required parking component of developments in the downtown D1 and D2 zoning districts can be satisfied off-site from the development. The city is using the acronym CIL for “contribution in lieu” to describe the option. The idea could be familiar to some readers as PILOP, or “payment in lieu of parking.” The sole vote against the resolution came from Mike Anglin (Ward 5).

If not provided on-site, the policy allows some of the minimum required parking spaces to be provided with one of two basic strategies: (1) commit to a 15-year contract with the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority to purchase monthly permits in the public parking system at a rate 20% greater than the ordinary price; or (2) pay $55,000 up front before a certificate of occupancy is issued. [.pdf of parking payment in lieu policy]

From my perspective the ideal reform would be to eliminate the outdated and wasteful minimum parking requirements altogether.  While I’d like to think that was the motivation behind Mr. Anglin’s “nay” vote, his vote against the Jackson road diet suggests a rather old-fashioned protectiveness toward the perceived interests of motorists.  We’ll have to wait for the Chronicle’s full report to fully ascertain his calculus, however.  In the meantime, I’d like to recognize my own Ward 3 council reps, Stephen Kunselman & Christopher Taylor, for what seem like prudent votes on both these proposals.

Apocalypse temporarily averted

It wouldn’t be Detroit if they didn’t all wait til the last possible minute to  do what had to be done.  A new era dawns?

In which I propose a moratorium

… on the use of the word ‘disingenuous’ by elected officials.

In particular, by Detroit elected officials (although it has been wildly and increasingly popular among members of Congress for the past several years).

The mayor used it last week to refer to the Governor’s proposed consent agreement.

Now Councilman/former acting mayor Ken Cockrel used it in the following context:

City Councilman Ken Cockrel said the administration has not presented Council with a decertification resolution because, Cockrel said, he believes the mayor is hoping Council with move forward with a resolution on their own.

Cockrel, who believes reforming the troubled agency doesn’t require decertification, called that move “disingenuous.”

In neither case was it used in a remotely appropriate context.

Enough already.  If you use this word, you are lazy and need to re-acquaint yourself with the richness of the English language.  Find another adjective, which is probably more suited to your intended meaning (which usually is ‘something I don’t like’).