Tag Archives: density

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.

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.

New infill developments, higher density in Ann Arbor

While I complained a couple of weeks ago about NIMBYism stalling high-density development in Ann Arbor, I have to admit that Ann Arbor seems to be buzzing with construction plans right now.  There’s the student high-rise currently under construction at 601 Forest, at the edge of the South University corridor.  Another apartment complex is slated for a space that looks to be right behind or next to the Panera on Plymouth west of Murfin:

(Existing) loft-style apartments (at the site) filled up quickly when they became available last spring, and currently maintain 100 percent occupancy at rates from $900 to $2,200 per unit…

“(I)t’s quite feasible that we could start construction between August and October,” says (architect Damian) Farrell.

“With a 10- to 12-month construction period, it could be available to rent sometime mid- to late summer next year.”

This is good infill development along a major bus line, adjacent to a lot of restaurants, and most importantly, right across the street from UM’s North Campus.

Finally, there’s the Packard Square development proposed in the former Georgetown Mall which I discussed in a post a couple of months ago.  According to the Ann Arbor Chronicle, the developer Craig Schubiner’s “ideal construction timeline will be… to start in August and finish by the end of 2012 or early 2013.”  The city planning board peppered him with complaints, including this bit that caught my eye:

Schubiner acknowledged the size of the plaza was a compromise based on the need to include adequate parking spaces for the retail aspects of the project.

Minimum parking requirements strike again!  was my initial reaction.  In fact, however,  it seems the planning commissioners sensibly pushed the developer to minimize or avoid free parking.  One would think it would be possible to coordinate with AATA to increase service on the Packard route that runs by the proposed development.  (Packard is also one of the more bikable roads in the city.)

Add in Zaragon Place II downtown on William St., also under construction, and you have at least four large new multi-unit developments on the market, all either downtown or located on major bus lines, set to significantly boost Ann Arbor’s density within the next two years.  Most encouraging is that each of these are infill projects, planted in already-developed parts relatively close to the city’s core, rather than sprawl spilling over into the cornfields and forests on the city’s edges.