Tag Archives: housing

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.

The homeownership racket

The Detroit area has the dubious distinction of having lost more home value than any other large metropolitan area in the country.  Metro Detroiters are acutely aware of the consequences:

In metro Detroit home prices… are roughly 38% below their 2000 levels.

Other cities that have home prices below their 2000 levels when the index was set at 100 are Cleveland, which has an index of 98.88, and Las Vegas, which has a 95.6 level. Metro Detroit is at 62.

While other metros are slowly beginning to recover, we are not: “Home prices in metro Detroit were down 2.8% from April, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller home price index. The only other city to see a drop in prices over April levels was Tampa with a 0.6% decline.” And there’s no end in sight:

Detroit home prices posted sharp declines during the first 6 months of 2011, according to a new report.  And the decline is expected to continue during the next 6 months.  Clear Capital reports Detroit’s home sale prices were down 19.8% during the first half of the year compared to the first six months of 2010… Alex Villacorta with Clear Capital… says Detroit’s home prices are expected to dip another 4% between now and end of December.

L. Brooks Patterson loves to crow about how sprawl has supposedly helped Oakland County, but you won’t hear him admitting how overbuilding helped to destroy the wealth of OC homeowners after the housing bubble popped.

It is no coincidence that Detroit’s rate of homeownership was the highest of the nation’s largest metros in the mid-20th century.  Detroit’s culture of homeownership is tied hand and foot to its high levels of segregation.  It has been amply documented how realtors exacerbated white flight from Detroit neighborhoods beginning in the 1950s;  they deliberately stoked fear among white homeowners with rumours that blacks were moving in and would bring down home prices.  They profited from the resulting turnover as entire neighborhoods flipped within the course of a decade.  Other aging industrial metropoli with large black populations, like Chicago and New York City, were protected from such rapid turnover partly by their lower rates of homeownership; renters simply did not have as much at stake financially in their neighborhood, and were less overcome by panic.

Federal housing policy was the catalyzing agent that allowed Detroit’s metropolitan area to sprawl uncontrollably after World War II; it was the Kevorkian that enabled the region’s economic suicide.  And federal housing policy, under both Democrats and Republicans, continues to wreak havoc on Detroit.

But what role exactly does the government play in homeownership?  “The United States spends more than $100 billion annually to subsidize homeowners,” explain NYU business professor Viral V. Acharya and a number of his colleagues in a New York Times op-ed. These expenditures, Acharya et al continue, are a significant driver of the federal deficit: “according to the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation, these tax breaks add up to $700 billion in lost government revenue over the five-year period through 2014.”  Joshua Green, formerly of the Atlantic, elaborates:

Even before the 2008 financial crisis, the government assumed the credit risk on most loans, which allowed banks to offer better rates, but ultimately left taxpayers footing the bill when the housing market collapsed: $138 billion and counting.

During the crisis, the government became even more involved in the mortgage market by rescuing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and agreeing to backstop larger loans… Today, the government backs 95 percent of new loans, leaving taxpayers more exposed than ever.

Many Americans have come to regard cheap mortgages as an entitlement.

And yet it’s not clear this fire hose of money has done much to increase the total level of American homeownership, Acharya et al suggest:

According to data collected by Alex J. Pollock of the American Enterprise Institute, a comparison of homeownership among economically advanced countries shows that the United States is in the middle of the pack, which suggests that subsidizing housing with tax breaks is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for a flourishing housing market. Rather, these subsidies enabled people to borrow more than they could afford so they could buy houses bigger than they needed…

Felix Salmon agrees that “there’s not even any real evidence that the deduction actually increases homeownership, rather than just artificially making houses more expensive to buy.”

Yet why is the deduction so popular?  One big problem is that a lot of Americans think they benefit from the tax treatment of mortgage interest more than they do, a belief perpetuated by misguided liberals who claim it helps low-income people attain the American dream. But  according to Adam S. Posen of  the Peterson Institute for International Economics, “This part of the tax code incentivizes speculation and borrowing, rather than investment and saving. It is very regressive.” Acharya et al write,

Renters get no breaks; homeowners get tons of them… homeownership policies and mortgage subsidies in the United States benefit the rich a lot more than the poor. For example, the economists James Poterba and Todd Sinai recently estimated that the benefits from the mortgage interest deduction for the average homeowning household that earns between $40,000 and $75,000 were about 10 times smaller than the benefits that accrue to the average household earning more than $250,000. These policies increase income inequality instead of reducing it.

Felix does a bit more of the math:

Households earning more than $200,000 a year account for less than 10% of the returns, but get 30% of all the benefits. And households earning more than $100,000 a year get 69% of all the benefit. The mortgage-interest deduction might be a middle-class tax break, but realistically it’s an upper-middle-class tax break…

He concludes, “Homeownership, especially during times of high unemployment, does more harm than good.”

If we capped federal loan limits for guaranteeing mortgages as well as the amount of interest that could be deducted, most homeowners would not be affected, only those that spend most lavishly on their homes.  As usual, the homebuilders  lobby for distortionary policy that encourages sprawl.

The banks do their bit to make a bad situation worse:

Lenders historically have treated residents of cities and rural areas as riskier than those who live in the suburbs… Poverty rates are higher in urban and rural areas. Potential borrowers tend to have lower credit scores and less money saved for down payments. In other words, lenders may charge higher rates on average because borrowers in these areas disproportionately pose greater risks.

Professor (Brent) Ambrose (of Penn State) said that determining the value of properties was also a challenge. Mortgage loans are secured by the value of the borrower’s home. The methods that lenders use to judge the value of a home, however, are best suited to the suburbs, where clusters of broadly similar houses allow easy comparisons… (I)n urban areas there can be too much noise in the data – large numbers of different kinds of homes in close proximity. The result is that lenders are less confident about the quality of their collateral…

Contrast our experience with that of Texas.  Slate’s Annie Lowrey cites one ingredient of the recipe for Texas’ economic resilience amidst the rest of the country’s recent contraction:

Texas kept its housing-finance regulations tight. As Alyssa Katz noted last year in The Big Money, Texas has had a longtime commitment to ensuring that homeowners make significant down payments and do not use their houses like piggy banks. The rules bar Texans from taking out home-equity lines of credit worth more than 80 percent of their mortgage. They also ban “cash-out refinancings,” which add to homeowners’ debt.

As a result, Texas never had a housing bubble.

Jonathan Chait echoes Lowrey’s account:

The best explanations for Texas’s success, other than its proximity to Mexico and resulting high levels of immigration, is (sic) genuinely good housing policies. Texas had tight lending requirements that prevented the inflation of a housing bubble, and it maintains loose zoning rules that allow for lots of cheap housing.

Adam Posen suggests other reforms:

Create a national tax leaning against land price swings: Local governments collect taxes already on all real estate transactions. The rates should increase when prices rise faster than population and income growth in an area (and decrease when prices rise slower). The revenue from the additional variable taxes should be transferred from booming markets to depressed communities. This would counteract large swings in housing prices and in local government spending…

Set a minimum mortgage loan-to-value ratio and have it vary over the business cycle: A simple rule that all mortgage lenders must require a minimum 20 percent down payment would restrict both speculation and exploitation of consumers. This ratio should automatically increase in boom times, but never go lower.

There’s arguably a silver lining to this catastrophe.  Kurt Metzger points out that, if nothing else, we now have some of the most affordable real estate in the nation.  What’s terrible for Metro Detroit’s homeowners is potentially enticing for those looking to buy a home here.

Full disclosure:  As I’ve previously noted on this blog, I own my home.

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.

Ann Arbor NIMBYism, part deux: The nerve!

Update: having calmed down a bit, I’ve annotated this post to reflect a more charitable and complete reading of Tom Whitaker’s comments.  Those updates are in red.

As a daily transit user, I was delighted to see the board of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority (AATA) vote to adopt the comprehensive “Smart Growth” strategy for long-term planning of the Ann Arbor region’s public transportation network.

As is my wont, I took the time after reading the Ann Arbor Chronicle’s coverage of the AATA board meeting to read the comments.  I almost laughed out loud when I read Tom Whitaker’s remarks regarding the AATA plan — not out of delight, but out of astonishment.

Whitaker writes of Washtenaw Avenue:

TOD (transit-oriented-development) might be a good idea if you are colonizing the moon… Applying it to existing healthy business strips like Washtenaw is simply a waste of resources that could be applied to other critical public needs…

I’m fine with studying cost-effective ways to improve the flow of traffic and increase pedestrian safety, but that’s entirely different than trying to completely reinvent/rebuild this auto-centric strip as a second downtown…

My first reaction to this passage was:

When the last time Tom Whitaker boarded one of the crammed-to-overflowing #4 buses during morning and afternoon rush hours?  When was the last time he traveled by car eastbound on Washtenaw between 4 and 7pm, or in the several hours following a UM football game?  When was the last time he tried to bike between, say, Tuomy Street and Whole Foods, or beneath the US-23 underpass? When was the last time he tried to cross the street on foot between Pittsfield Avenue and Arborland Mall?

Upon re-reading later, I noted Whitaker does favor improving traffic flow and pedestrian safety, the very issues I raised.  I remain puzzled by his antipathy toward TOD on Washtenaw, which is in no way a greenfield.  The Ann Arbor region is going to continue to experience population growth in the next decade, and those people are going to have to go somewhere; why not retrofit an existing commercial strip to accommodate them?  Moreover, he seems to be setting up a straw man of the AATA’s plans, reacting with paranoia to what seems to me to be well in keeping with current best practices in urban planning.  Nor is TOD inevitably destined to be “a waste of resources,” diverting funds from the public coffers.

Washtenaw Avenue is an ideal candidate for transit-oriented re-development as it is the main artery between Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor and consequently heavy with commuters five days a week.  Now, for Whitaker, “(a) dismal commute,” as he terms the standing-room-only misery AATA bus commuters like myself frequently experience, is “one incentive for more people to live in or close to the real downtown”:

Supposedly, increasing residential density in the downtown core was the goal of all the research, discussion and planning for the last 10 years. Some say it was intended to be a complementary strategy to the Greenbelt.

Yet so far all we have is one bankrupt condo building and a bunch of student high rises. Public money is being put toward civic buildings, parking structures and potentially a hotel and conference center instead of the original goal of creating a welcoming and livable downtown core. Why not curb our ambitions for our suburban outskirts…

This is ironic, in light of Whitaker’s steadfast opposition to a large residential development that was proposed in his neighborhood just south of “downtown proper” which allegedly ends at William Street.  (If you browse some of his many comments at AnnArbor.com you can see that his opposition to development does not end with the City Place/Heritage Row proposals.)

Whitaker is correct that there has been at least one high-profile disaster — I’m thinking of Ashley Terrace — and that the crop of recent developments have been geared toward students.  I acknowledge that the Germantown Association has the right to advocate for their perceived interests as property owners, though I think the city’s zoning rules they cite in their favor are ridiculous and backward-looking.  I also share his scepticism about investing public money in the proposed downtown convention center.  But what exactly does he propose for a “welcoming and livable downtown core,”  and how does he propose to fit more people close to downtown?

I am a resident of Pittsfield Village just south of Arborland Mall, a new first-time homeowner (as of last summer), and a daily commuter by the #4 bus line, and I can attest from personal experience that it is virtually impossible to buy even the most modest home anywhere north of Stadium or west of Washtenaw for less than $100,000; the Village offered by far the most affordable homes west of Ypsilanti with access to frequent bus service to my workplace.  Tom Whitaker, one of the most outspoken of the Germantown Neighborhood Association, one of the most vocal critics of high-density development near downtown Ann Arbor, is arguing we should all move there downtown?

As a resident of Ann Arbor who can not afford to shell out 40% of my monthly income on a home, nor wishes to pay $900/month* to rent one of the plethora of mediocre apartments (as he notes, catering primarily to students) available in the neighborhoods surrounding downtown, it is hard for me not to construe Tom Whitaker’s remarks as elitist.

It is hard for me not to read them as the expectation of well-to-do homeowners in downtown Ann Arbor that everyone live within walking distance of that area, while refusing to allow development that would make it affordable to move there.

It is hard for me not to take his remarks to what seems to be the underlying conclusion:  that Ann Arbor should deny the opportunity for reliable, frequent public transit to us who lack the means to live adjacent to downtown.

OK, on second read that is a bit of a stretch.  But I firmly maintain that, given Ann Arbor’s current zoning and development policies, improved public transit to the very few affordable areas of Ann Arbor will benefit the community.  It will do so by reducing motor vehicle congestion and will help limit auto-dependent sprawl as the region’s population grows.  The Smart Growth scenario seems like it will help get us there.

Mr. Whitaker, I’ve never met you personally, but if you end up reading this, please do not hesitate to respond if I misconstrue your intent.

*I know for any readers from coastal metros $900/month for a modest one-bedroom apartment may sound like a steal, but it is pretty high for anywhere in the Midwest outside of Chicago, and certainly by far the highest in Michigan.

Brownfield redevelopment in Ann Arbor & Ypsi

(Apology in advance:  My references in this post are pretty much all from AnnArbor.com.  I try to cite a wider range of sources most of the time but the Ann Arbor Chronicle and other outlets don’t seem to have got around to reporting much on the stories in this post yet.  Just wanted to make clear I recognized I’m not exactly adhering to best practices in the following.)

Yes, Virginia, there IS blight in Ann Arbor.

Of course, there’s a vast and very prominent swath of it concentrated immediately south of University of Michigan’s Central Campus, known and loved by UM students and alumni as their very own housing ghetto.  In most Midwestern cities, the oldest housing stock is reserved for the poorest and generally allowed to go to hell.  In cities like Saginaw, Flint, Lansing, and of course Detroit these mostly nineteenth century homes are the epicenter of an ever-widening circle of blight, and eventually most are abandoned and razed.

There are exceptions to this rule:  Grand Rapids has generally done very well by its historic neighborhoods, most notably in Heritage Hill, where the gays and their fellow travelers have lavished love and attention on the neighborhood’s historic mansions.  My hometown, Bay City, has what I consider the next best preserved stock of nineteenth century housing in the entire state, and at fire sale prices might I add.

In Ann Arbor, a constant churn of students have filled the demand for the decrepit hulks that fill the student ghetto.  This demand has both helped to preserve the battered structures and to keep the price of real estate of any kind in the area head and shoulders beyond most any in the Midwest outside of Chicago, let alone Michigan.

Further out from the old core of the city, though, Ann Arbor has pockets of blight just like any other community:  parcels that, for whatever reason, the owners have allowed it to decline and to sit vacant.  One of the more notorious cases over the past decade has been the Georgetown Mall off Packard Road south of Stadium Blvd., where among an otherwise prosperous and stable single-family neighborhood sprawls a vacant shopping center, formerly anchored by a Kroger supermarket.

So it was big news when reports began surfacing that Georgetown’s owner was planning to redevelop the site.  Lazy blogger that I am, I’ll direct you to Ryan Stanton’s most recent update on the situation.

I often find the comments on AnnArbor.com’s posts valuable in gleaning popular sentiment and highlighting points of controversy, and those responding to Stanton’s update are no exception.  First let me emphasize that the type of Ann Arbor residents who make themselves heard on redevelopment proposals are NIMBY to the extreme.  Whether it be preserving an old building, holding on to every last inch of the city’s massive parkland, or ensuring a three-story building is not overshadowed by a five-story one, there will be a shrill pocket of citizens who will find a reason to oppose ANY project, no matter how shambolic the condition of the property to be redeveloped.  This has had the virtue of helping to maintain that price premium over its neighbors that I cited earlier;  it has kept the city’s population well below what it otherwise would have been; and it has contributed to the growth of surrounding communities like Dexter and Saline, while keeping Ypsilanti’s population from declining as rapidly as it might otherwise have.

Consequently, the response to the Georgetown situation is noteworthy:  cautious optimism and support from residents and other commenters, qualified by no small measure of scepticism.   One commenter captures why:

As the article points out, (Bloomfield Hills developer) Craig Schubiner is the owner of this mall. He has repeatedly announced plans for redevelopment, only to have something go awry. Why is this plan different? And for how many years have the taxes gone unpaid? Have there been any payments? How can we feel confident he will pay the back taxes?… The developer owned this property *while* it was becoming blighted and the parking lot was deteriorating. This was happening when Georgetown Mall still had active tenants. So, the developer himself caused all this blight by not maintaining his own property. And now it qualifies for redevelopment credits because it is blighted?

AnnArbor.com’s editorial today provides a bit more detail on Schubiner’s ‘checkered background with this particular property and others’:

In 2008, Schubiner proposed to revive the mall with a project called Georgetown Commons, a concept that would have included a 45,000-square-foot Kroger, a number of other retail shops and 150 apartments. Noting came of that plan. Meanwhile, his $2 billion Bloomfield Park project in Oakland County went belly-up in 2008 and is often pointed to as a poster child of failed real estate development in Michigan.

But the editorial board ultimately seems willing to give him more credit:

We recognize the severe hardships that many developers like Schubiner faced in the economic meltdown of 2008, and we would be glad to see him succeed with this new concept for the Georgetown Mall… Schubiner has demonstrated a willingness to listen to homeowners’ concerns about deterioration of the former strip mall after the Kroger store closed. Blighting conditions have been addressed as neighbors have pointed them out.

They also offer Schubiner some advice:

While city and state officials consider his proposal, Schubiner can help his own cause by listening to the input of neighbors and incorporating their concerns into his final designs. Their primary concerns seems to be whether the number of apartment units being proposed is appropriate, or too dense for the property. Planning standards can help answer that question…

(T)here also is the matter of $277,000 in back taxes owed on the property. New development of the land can’t begin until those taxes are paid. If the developer wants to demonstrate his good faith, as well as his financial ability to undertake a project of this scope, resolving the delinquent taxes would be an opportunity to do both.

Meanwhile, AnnArbor.com’s terrific business reporter Paula Gardner reports on more redevelopment news several miles to the east in Ypsilanti, on West Cross near Eastern Michigan University’s campus.  Gardner offers her personal take on why she thinks the purchase is a ‘game-changer’:

The buyer is O’Neal Inc., the Ann Arbor construction company that also redeveloped Kerrytown, creating a retail hub for that interesting, historical district on the north edge of Ann Arbor’s downtown…
The plan… suits the market: With so many students nearby, the updated apartments will elevate its portion of the student housing stock.
And giving retailers new, high-profile space to find their niche adjacent to the campus-oriented area adds a new element to the city’s commercial real estate market.
Lastly, the O’Neal company has both the capital and experience to make the project valuable and viable to their portfolio and the community. That can’t always be said about new projects…
Now, with O’Neal’s purchase in the mix, the building at 735 E. Cross stands ready to tip the entire corridor toward improvement.
That’s no small order for a street that for years has functioned well under its potential, considering its place next to one of the state’s largest universities.

Ann Arborites are a gimlet-eyed bunch when it comes to development and redevelopment, so the general optimism greeting both these projects makes them stand out. (It’s a refreshing contrast to the rather desperate exuberance Detroiters exhibit with the slightest mention of any kind of development in their city, which more often than not fizzles before anything actually is brought to fruition.)

I’m especially heartened by the West Cross news, as I am whenever I hear about investment in Ypsi.  Gardner’s remark about functioning below its potential could just as well be applied to Ypsi in general, which in my view is by far the weakest of Michigan’s major college towns.  (As with Wayne State until very recently, Eastern was just a commuter school, its failure to boost its community compounded by poor management under some of its past presidents, and an underprivileged student population with lousy graduation rates).  It’s especially disappointing to me that Ypsi has so far failed to capitalize on one of its biggest assets, its building stock.  The heart of Ypsi is filled with some of the oldest surviving buildings in any Michigan city; you just don’t find that density of Greek and Gothic Revival homes north of the Ohio border.

I conjecture that the already high cost of housing in Ann Arbor has been held in check by Michigan’s depression since 2000, and as the rest of the region recovers in the 2010s that cost is going to spiral to new levels.  If that does happen, it could catalyze long-delayed gentrification in Ypsi, which is well-connected by bus service to central Ann Arbor and offers housing at a fraction of the rents.  It’s a city with a lot of troubles but excellent bones underneath it all, and if Ann Arbor’s prosperity eventually manages to spill over to the east, it could really begin to shine.

‘As fast as budgets will allow’

Urbanophile re-publishes a post originally from Dotage St. Louis, titled “Random Thoughts on the Cult of Destruction in St Louis“:

“My leaders have, time and time again, supported the removal of a sturdy built environment and its replacement with something much less, something much worse…. The more and more I experience cities, the less and less I am willing to accept St. Louis’s exceptional status as a destroyer of its most unique asset, its built environment… The answer… (to blight) is not to simply tear out buildings right as they become vacant.”

Angie Schmitt at Rust Wire picks up the thread: ‘Youngstown, Cleveland, Buffalo, St. Louis and Detroit are all tearing down buildings as fast as budgets will allow. I hope we don’t wake up in 5 years and realize we’ve made a big mistake. We will never be able to replace the quality of what was lost.’

The city of Detroit also has a well-established cult of destruction.  Just this week, officials announced the plan to demolish the  long-abandoned but cherished eyesore known as old Cass Tech High School.   But old Cass Tech had been vacant since at least 2005, when its gorgeous glass-walled replacement opened.  I suspect the threat posed by over-zealous and unnecessary demolition had ceased to be a threat by about 20 years ago.  For a long time now, Detroit has been churning out vacant buildings way faster than its budget would allow for their teardown.  At the current rate, the backlog of vacant properties will have only grown in five years, absent several hundred million dollars more in demolition assistance from the federal government.

For one thing, most of these structures have little no real prospects of ever housing anyone but squatters ever again.  Residents will vouch that it doesn’t take long after a building falls vacant for Detroit’s creative and enterprising scrappers to strip the copper from it.  Michigan’s harsh winters and summer humidity make quick work of wood.  With what’s left I’d imagine it’s nearly as cheap, if not cheaper, to rebuild from scratch than to try to rehab the existing house.  (Which is not to say that ambitious do it yourselvers don’t sometimes try and even succeed; the palatial 1887 house in Corktown I rented when I lived in Detroit had been beautifully renovated.)

Moreover, these structures, historic as they may be, are far from harmless.   Detroit recently suffered a wave of fires caused by downed power lines to which its fire department proved tragically slow to respond.  The risk has grown to the point that the city of Highland Park is actually seeking federal funds that are normally allocated for brush fires in the mountain west.

Perhaps even more insidious than fire is how blight discourages potential residents and demoralizes current ones.  I remember touring a duplex in Woodbridge back in summer 2007.  Like the Corktown home my roommates and I eventually chose, it was beautiful and historic — but the view from the back porch was of the collapsed, fire-damaged facade of the building to its rear.  I was new to Detroit, and while I was adventurous enough to try it out in the face of the raised eyebrows of older family members and co-workers, the message I took from that view from the back porch was not welcoming.  I kept looking, elsewhere.

If you’re that concerned about it, buy some property in Detroit and do something with it.  I agree with Angie and Dotage blogger Matthew Mourning that our cities lose an irreplaceable part of their heritage every time they demolish a building of a certain age, and that in the past such decisions have been made far too readily.  But city residents don’t just get to photograph these picturesque ruins and hope against hope that someday somebody with money will choose to invest in their restoration.  They have to live among them, and with their consequences.