Tag Archives: Ann Arbor

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.

Oh, Sh**: Excretion, the forgotten public services issue?

This weekend, a friend in Pontiac posted to his blog,

While I was getting ready for work this morning, our trusty dog Gus started barking furiously during his morning yard exercises. I took that as a sign that someone was passing by on foot, followed his sounds to the west side of the house and peeked out of the bedroom window.

Lo and behold, there was a gentleman defecating on a tree in the city lot next to our house…

I contacted the Oakland County Sheriff’s Department and put in a complaint, but the scatological scofflaw had already departed on foot by the time they drove through the Union Court area between Union and Mechanic Streets.

It was the second time in the past week this particular issue had crossed my radar.  A subscriber to the (wonderful) Washtenaw Bicycling and Walking Coalition Google Group shared a thought-provoking post:

I suspect, that in most of the world’s “walkable cities” you’ll find public toilets at the ready and the way-finding in place to leave little confusion of where they are located…

Here in the U.S… the norm is avoidance of the topic.
We apparently prefer to subsidize the storage of people’s automobiles (MW) over providing for bodily requirements that impact everyone’s ability to be a
fully functioning human.

Here in Ann Arbor you often read of locals’ impassioned lobbying for more “green space” and parkland downtown.  I can’t recall a single instance of any of these well-intentioned citizens suggesting the city invest in what strikes me as a far more urgent investment, a few simple pay toilets.

Details of implementation are crucial, of course.  Recall the scandal a little over a year ago over the horrendous conditions in the bathrooms of the otherwise lovely new Rosa Parks Transit Center in Detroit (a classic example of “Why We Can’t Have Nice Things”).   Meanwhile, the unbelievably patient staff at the Ann Arbor District Library’s downtown branch struggle on a daily basis with downtown’s ample homeless population, which likes to use the library’s bathrooms to wash up and launder their clothes.

In the event that City Council or the DDA decided to extend the right to void with dignity to pedestrians, the Atlantic Cities suggests emulating Portland and its eponymous loo, which “includes a variety of bells and whistles meant to keep in check the most degenerate of bathroom users”:

• No running water inside: “Some people, if they’re homeless, use a sink to wash their laundry,” says (city staffer Anna) DiBenedetto. So there’s no sink, just a spigot on the outside that pours cold water.
• No mirror: People tend to smash mirrors…
• Bars at the top and bottom of the structure... Cops can peep in near the ground to make sure there’s no more than one set of feet inside. The openings also help sound flow freely, letting pedestrians hear the grunts and splashes of the person inside and the person inside hear the footsteps and conversation of pedestrians…
• A graffiti-proof coating…
• Walls and doors made from heavy-gauge stainless steel: “It’s built with the idea that somebody could take a bat to it,” DiBenedetto says. “And if they did damage it, we could replace that part.”…

These PSYOP-worthy features are outlined in U.S. Patent No. D622,408 S, which Leonard received in the summer of 2010. The toilet has the dubious honor of being the city of Portland’s first patent.

I personally don’t think see anything dubious about the honor.

I’ll also note that there’s no reason the Portland Loo or similar such investment need necessarily be undertaken by the local government or DDA.  Could it perhaps prove a lucrative undertaking for a private sector actor, whether an entrepreneur or an established company?

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.

Motown v. TreeTown II

So I might have been a bit hasty with my last post.  To paraphrase Kate Bush, maybe I have a little life in me yet.

I just finished a long-postponed entry on WDET’s ‘Move to Detroit’ survey.  I’m mulling over a post on my thoughts on the 2012 Apocalypse, aka what exactly is going to happen to Detroit when the city runs out of money in a few months.  Perhaps I should change the title of this blog to “On Motown From TreeTown” since I never really say anything about Ann Arbor anymore.  Part of the malaise about this blog that motivated my last post stems from my own sense of inadequacy compared to my fellow Ann Arbor bloggers.  Damn Arbor pretty much has the cultural, foodie, & bike porn beats covered;  TeacherPatti has cornered the market on beer; I can’t match Local in Ann Arbor‘s wonkiness and budget expertise;  and I wouldn’t even dare to compare my armchair bloviating to the heroic investments by the team of the Chronicle.  It astounds me how much intellectual firepower and civic passion there is in Ann Arbor.  It makes for contentious local politics, and a level of hair-splitting that I sometimes find tedious.  But it reflects a populace that is unusually engaged in its own affairs, with a corresponding degree of self-empowerment.  It gives me confidence that our community will continue to hold its leaders accountable in a way that Detroiters haven’t for decades, thereby ensuring competent management.

It is certainly a contrast to analysis of Detroit, which is mostly heat with very little light.  I was listening to Craig Fahle’s year-end conversation with Stephen Henderson and Bankole Thompson last week.  While gritting my teeth every time Thompson said “I mean” or “you know” (which happened pretty much every sentence) it occurred to me that neither of these supposed experts on metro Detroit affairs seemed to have any more of an idea what is going on in the region, or what would happen to the city, than I did.  The Metro Times has some pretty great coverage, but it only comes out once per week, and a lot of their staff focus on very specific beats (e.g. Larry Gabriel on weed policy, Detroitblogger John on the lumpenproletariat, the Wonder Twins on partying and local music, Lessenberry on cussing out politicians) leaving me plenty of room to explore.

So my New Year’s resolution for this blog is to set it free and see where it goes.  If it continues to be light on Ann Arbor & heavy on Detroit, well, hopefully that lights a fire under Ann Arbor’s ass to up its game (ouch, mixed metaphor, I know) and make some news.  I also have some pretty hefty reserves of polemic accumulating on the topics of density, zoning, parking, and the car, so stay tuned for some rants on those themes as well.

I also am still struggling with the whole issue of anonymity.  That might be what really kills off this blog.  It just feels shady when Ben, Vivienne & others are posting under their own names, and Maxine Berman lambastes and accuses of cowardice those who comment anonymously.  I’m still trying to figure out what to do about that.  Mainly I just need to settle on a good pen name.  I’ll buy a pony and a drink at the Village Pub for whoever comes up with the winning idea.

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.

My problem with the Occupy movement

I don’t especially mind the lack of coherence or structure in the Occupy Movement.  Thanks in large part to Dahlia Lithwick’s persuasive column on the Occupation, I have a better understanding of why the Occupiers choose to remain vague about their goals and decentralized in their decisonmaking.

What bothers me are the sites they are choosing to Occupy.  The location of the original Occupation makes sense because it’s on Wall Street, the epicenter of the problem they are trying to confront.  But cities like Oakland, Portland, LA, Detroit, & Ann Arbor are not power centers for Big Finance.  For the most part they are financially precarious municipalities that are already at a disadvantage compared to their neighbors, struggling to provide basic services to their populations.  Their mayors and police forces have enough on their plate without having to worry about crime and sanitation and infection control in a new encampment.

Meanwhile, no one is occupying the suburbs, exurbs and rural areas where most of the affluent live, comfortably shielded from the Occupations and the various externalities they generate on the surrounding neighborhoods.  With the exception of Wall Street and Washington, D.C., none of the encampments are located at sites where they could personally impact people in positions of state or national power, or anybody in the “1%.”

While I don’t understand why Mayor Bloomberg felt it necessary to stage a stealth break up of the Wall Street camp at 1am, I think it’s perfectly reasonable for the mayors of these cities to say enough is enough when those externalities start to disrupt daily life for those who live and work in the city.  (People do actually live and work near Zuccotti Park besides investment bankers and hedge fund managers, after all.)  The Occupy movement still enjoy plenty of good will from Americans, based on poll numbers.  To retain that good will, they will need to adjust their tactics and remain flexible, however.  They should resist letting single-mindedness and conviction become myopia, or allowing self-expression spill over into selfishness.  There is absolutely no reason for the mayors of central cities and OWS to be on opposing sides, when in truth they face common threats.

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.