Tag Archives: planning

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.

Why Michigan’s roads suck

According to a Free Press/WXYZ-TV poll last week, 58% of Michiganders would rather continue whining about their roads than fixing them.  I don’t find this terribly surprising.

It is conventional wisdom in Michigan that the condition of our roads is among the country’s worst.   I’ve read a number of different theories for why this may be.  One is that we have unusually high weight limits for trucks.  Another is the freeze-thaw cycle that results from our harsh winters.  Another is American road construction standards, which generate cheaper bills but demand more frequent repairs.  Presumably each of these factors contributes to our bumpy rides, to some extent.

What I almost never hear cited as a factor is how incredibly overbuilt Michigan is.  (Credit due to Urbanophile, who has written at length about this phenomenon elsewhere in the country, and Charles Marohn, whose theory of the “growth Ponzi scheme” I’ve praised.)  And by Michigan I primarily mean metro Detroit,  with Genesee and Saginaw counties also shouldering significant amounts of blame.  Is it any coincidence that these areas also have some of the most segregated populations, auto-centric layouts, depressed home values, and dysfunctional inner cities in the entire country? The Detroit, Flint and Saginaw metropolitan areas are the poster children for autocentric sprawl, and have reaped their just desserts for it. Among the consequences of the sprawl is that, of course, we can’t afford to pay to maintain the countless miles of asphalt laid to service it.  And MDOT, unbelievably, responds to this situation by proposing expansion projects like adding lanes to I-94 in the city of Detroit.  You can’t blame respondents to the Free Press poll for thinking that the last thing we need to do is throw more money at the imbeciles running our state’s transportation policy.

In the spirit of problem-solving, here’s my proposal to help solve two problems at once:  our threadbare roads and our decimated industrial inner cities.   Restrict all state dollars allocated toward road construction and maintenance to the oldest paved segments.  Earmark the majority of road dollars toward the core streets that serviced central cities and inner suburbs before, say, World War II, giving an edge to fiscally struggling older communities across the state like Detroit, Grand Rapids, Ypsilanti, Pontiac, and Saginaw, as well as dense and walkable older communities like Plymouth, Rochester or Brighton.

This will never happen, of course, because Michiganders continue to overwhelmingly choose exurban isolation over city life, and dependency on car travel to the exclusion of any other form of transit.  They will continue to do so, even as the roads they travel disintegrate to rubble and eventually, one by one, revert to gravel.  They will continue to lament the potholes and the flat tires because they’d rather complain than pay a nickel more in gas taxes.   Their leaders will continue to subsidize greenfield development over infill, convinced that for their particular community at least the bill will never come due.

It’s the Michigan way.

PS 2-8-12:  I also want to make it clear that I think the proposal, introduced by State Sen. Howard Walker, to scrap the state’s gas tax in favor of paying for roads with a sales tax increase is insane.  The gas tax should be increased, not scrapped, and we should not be shifting the burden of paying for roads from heavy users (people who drive a lot) to light users (people who bike, walk, carpool or ride the bus).   This bill idea deserves to die.

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.

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.

“The Growth Ponzi Scheme”

More and more, I think sprawl is THE underlying problem in American cities, and addressing it as THE solution.  It’s not the only problem, nor are solutions that address it a silver bullet to all the other challenges facing cities.  But to me, it is more central to solving more urban problems than any other single issue.

Unfortunately, it’s an issue that most Americans don’t grasp very well, if they even think about it at all.  There’s a lot of educating, a lot of helping people connect the dots, to be done.  So I was excited when I came across (H/T Charlotte blogger Mary Newsom*) an organization called Strong Towns, and an excellent series called “The Growth Ponzi Scheme.”

In the series, Strong Towns Executive Director Charles Marohn demonstrates, through a number of  examples, how real estate developers’ upfront contribution toward costs are typically inadequate for long-term maintenance.  A generation later, the taxpayer foots the remainder of the bill.  Marohn concludes: “Our places do not create wealth, they destroy wealth.”

In the next installment of the series, Marohn provides a graph showing “(t)he cumulative cash flow of multiple projects in succession over two life cycles”:

The results are obvious and devastating. When the private-sector investment does not yield enough tax revenue to maintain the underlying public infrastructure, the balance can be made up in the short term with new growth. Over the long run, however, insolvency is unavoidable… First, this is actually a model of a well-run city, one that puts money away for future improvements. I’ve yet to see one that has such fiscal discipline…

Second, this model shows the impact of continuous and steady growth. In reality, that is not the pattern most cities experience. Most cities have a phase of rapid growth followed by stagnation and then decline, as described by Jane Jacobs in The Economy of Cities. Superimpose the financial underpinnings of the American model of development and the results are even more devastating – a flood of liabilities all coming due right at the time that growth is starting to wane.

In the fourth installment, Marohn ties the growth Ponzi scheme in to the debt fueled national economic disaster of the last 40 years:

The critical insight today is to understand how we reacted to the end of the first life cycle of suburban development, when those maintenance costs started to come due and cut into our growth-generated wealth…. (W)e made a choice to double down on the suburban experiment by taking on debt.

We used debt to drive additional growth and sustain the unsustainable development pattern for a while longer… The first generation of suburbia we built on savings and investment, but we built the second — and maintained the first — using debt. Unprecedented levels of debt.

And in the process, we transformed our industrial economy into one based on consumption.

(W)e’ve tethered our national psyche to the suburban ideal we call the “American Dream”, our auto-based, utopia where everyone gets to live a faux version of European aristocracy on their own mini-estate.

His prognosis for the immediate future is pessimistic:

None of our public officials has ever asked the question: Will this public project generate enough tax revenue to sustain its maintenance over multiple life cycles?…

I’m astonished and more than a little depressed at the shallow nature of the public debate we are having over this crisis. Do we cut the budget or spend more? Do we raise taxes or reduce them? Does raising the debt ceiling signal fiscal responsibility or a lack of restraint? Do we build rail lines or highways? How do we restore housing values? How do we lower unemployment?…

Nobody has acknowledged that a) the bubble economies of tech and housing were not financially real, b) we can not “recover” to a condition that was not financially real in the first place, and therefore c) we need to start focusing on a transition to something close to reality, which is a long ways from where we currently are.

There’s a lot more here.  I encourage readers to bookmark the Strong Towns blog in your RSS reader of choice and to read the series in full.  I am not sure how novel Marohn’s thesis is, as he builds upon a number of ideas I’ve encountered in previous literature on sprawl and on the housing bubble.  But it’s a thorough primer, broken up and presented in a way that should be friendly to time-pressed voters, planners, and elected officials.

Fenced eyesores, compliments of the City of Ann Arbor

I beat up on Tom Whitaker a couple of months ago for a comment he made on the Ann Arbor Chronicle’s website.  So I think it’s only fair to recognize a really good comment he made this week at another story on the Chronicle:

Whitaker writes of the city of Ann Arbor’s development permits:

Ask the planning department for their spreadsheet that documents submitted projects, their approval status, and the time it took them to get through the process. The data may surprise you. It did when I saw it about a year and a half ago. The vast majority of stalled projects in Ann Arbor were not those that could not make it through the process. The stalled projects were those that were approved, but could not be financed. State law enables the City to require a performance guarantee of developers, but the City has not enforced this. The result? Existing housing and businesses were taken out and replaced with vacant lots with much lower property taxes.

Broadway Village is probably the best example of out-of-town developers coming in, demanding public money and special zoning, promising the moon, and not delivering. There is a fenced vacant lot (still contaminated) at Maiden Lane and Broadway to commemorate this for us all. Several businesses, with their jobs and tax revenues, are no longer there.

Board ups can be found at Main and Catherine (former Greek church), site of the failed Gallery project, as well as Main and Summit, where several affordable houses have been boarded up for years–one recently burned. Glen and Ann is another vacant lot close to downtown, where businesses and houses once stood, paying taxes and providing jobs and housing. Now it is a fenced eyesore with the out-of-state developer/owner paying only minimal property taxes for vacant land. That project (Glen Ann Place) was granted approval by City Council instead of Council backing up the Historic District Commission in court. The developer was just granted an extension to keep his vacant lot for a couple more years. There are several more examples.

I’d wondered in my post Wednesday how Broadway Village had ended up growing weeds for the past several years; as I learned from Whitaker, we have the City to blame, in part, for it.

“Where are you going to find 100,000 square feet?”

AnnArbor.com’s Paula Gardner describes a problem most Michigan cities would love to have:

It’s easy to celebrate upon hearing the assertion from Barracuda Networks that it wants to hire up to 500 new employees and acquire or build a 100,000-square-foot office in downtown Ann Arbor…

But it also begs the question posed by developer Ed Shaffran: “Where are you going to find 100,000 square feet?”

AnnArbor.com reader Bernie P. had an idea:

Brownfield @ Broadway / Maiden Lane – COULD BE purpose built for a Barracuda campus to hold 500 people with parking, shopping, etc, etc.

Bonus is that it is within walking distance of AATA stops from the park & ride at Plymouth / US23.

As I already wrote in response to his comment:  I could not agree more.

Before I moved out near Arborland, I lived off Maiden Lane on the north side right next to the huge abandoned brownfield at the corner of Broadway and Maiden Lane.  Surrounded by chain link fence, the property has reverted to prairie and looks like something you’d see in Detroit, not Ann Arbor.

Lower Town is probably the most blighted part of Ann Arbor.  The student ghetto is blighted too, but at least has a high population density;  Lower Town, largely divided between unkempt university parking lots and the property I’m writing about, just feels empty.  It’s a puzzling failure of land use, since it includes ample parkland along the Huron River and sits in the heart of the city, smack in between the prime real estate of Kerrytown and the University’s sprawling North Campus.

As I noted in my comment responding to Bernie P., the site has a number of advantages for a corporate campus of some size.   It would presumably be much cheaper than downtown real estate, while offering access to the river and, as he noted, AATA’s #2 bus.  The biggest problem would probably be opposition from homeowners on Broadway, but steps could be taken to minimize adverse impacts on their neighborhood.  And the most immediate neighbors on the other three sides of the site are either commercial, rental housing, or university parking.   It’s not quite as glamorous as downtown, but certainly better than developing on the city’s outskirts.   And providing space for employee parking would be infinitely easier than downtown.

Am I missing something?  Anybody know why this site has been idle for so long, besides the lousy real estate market?

Our Fat City: the epidemiology of Metro Detroit’s roads

Another week, another vapid ranking from Richard Florida, in which he proves again that rich cities are healthier, fitter, and more “innovative” than poor, fat, unhealthy metros like Detroit.  Florida never seems to tire of flogging this particular horse.  Pretty much every ranking he produces reinforces that a handful of rich metros are full of innovative, well-educated, secular, skinny, tolerant, creative class people — and that Detroit is not one of them.

Enough already.  I get it.  As I noted before, Ann Arbor does pretty well on Florida’s rankings, when it’s included.  But its metro area, as defined by the Census Bureau, only includes Washtenaw County.  So it rarely make these kind of lists, which tend to be confined to the country’s largest metros.

Unfortunately, another new ranking of metro areas reinforces Florida’s fitness findings from a different angle.  This past week, the nonprofit Transportation for America released a report called “Dangerous by Design,” analyzing pedestrian safety across the U.S. and ranking the 52 metropolitan areas with more than a million residents by how dangerous those metros are for pedestrians.   Detroit ranks as the twelfth most dangerous, the worst outside the Sunbelt by 11 places.

These numbers resonate with me personally, too.  I’ve had two friends in recent years get hit and severely injured by cars while walking.   I’ve had a number of other friends who have been hit by cars while biking, some requiring hospitalization.  Who doesn’t know someone who’s been injured in recent years under these circumstances?  Our legislators and planners are not taking this seriously enough.  It’s a failure most of all of our planners and our traffic engineers, who should be held accountable for designing unsafe roads and intersections, choices that can kill.

There is a connection between Detroit’s place on both the Florida and the T4A rankings, insofar as only 1.4% of metro Detroiters walk to work.  By comparison, the four metros on the T4A ranking that score highest for pedestrian safety have respective rates of 2.4%, 4.6%, 6%, and 3.6% —  nearly double, triple, or quadruple Detroit’s.   Metro Detroit also has one of the highest shares of workers who commute alone by car, ninth among the 100 most populous metros, according to the Brookings Institution.  Slate’s Annie Lowrey reminded us this week of the toll commuting by car exacts on our health:

The joy of living in a big, exurban house, or that extra income leftover from your cheap rent? It is almost certainly not worth it…

(P)eople with long commutes are fatter, and national increases in commuting time are posited as one contributor to the obesity epidemic. Researchers at the University of California–Los Angeles, and Cal State–Long Beach, for instance, looked at the relationship between obesity and a number of lifestyle factors, such as physical activity. Vehicle-miles traveled had a stronger correlation with obesity than any other factor.

Again, it’s a story that the media has documented and reported ad nauseum;  I’ve been reading these studies for years, and have taken the research to heart in a number of ways.  While I’m a big fan of and advocate for the Ride, aka Ann Arbor Transportation Authority, I also am a big fan of not getting any fatter than I can help, though it’s a battle I’ve been losing the past couple of years.  So since winter tapered into spring, I’ve started commuting to and from work by bike.  It’s allowed me to combine my commute with forty minutes of exercise, twice a day, killing two birds with one stone.

Metro Detroit’s planning is killing us, through injury, stress, and obesity.  It is a public health disaster with many symptoms, but one underlying cause:  the region’s leaders allowed planners and developers to shape it around a mid-twentieth century auto-centric paradigm.

The good news is that it’s not at all suburbs-versus-Detroit thing, as many suburbs have preserved or cultivated “complete streets” to degree far beyond anything you see in Detroit itself.  By addressing pedestrian safety, job sprawl, and mode of transit as issues of public health, and by demanding that our planners, traffic engineers, and transportation officials make it safer for non-motorists to get around, everyone can win.

At the very least, shouldn’t we be motivated by the opportunity to lose a few pounds?

Pittsfield Township Master Plan

Pittsfield Township has a draft of their newly overhauled master plan posted on the web.  As I live just north of the border between Ann Arbor and the township, their planning and zoning has a big impact on me, so I decided to check it out.  I browsed through it fairly quickly, but it’s a surprisingly enlightened document.

Part of the context for the revision is the township’s rapid (for Michigan) population growth:

(T)here was a tremendous increase when the population more than doubled between 1980 and 2000 going from 12,986 to 30,167.
Between 2000 and 2010 Pittsfield Township’s population grew to 34,663.

Interestingly, they used personas, which was not a practice I realized was common outside of human-computer interaction.

The proposal for future density.

Slide 33: They want to dramatically boost the amount of mixed use development along Carpenter as far south as Ellsworth, and also at Ann Arbor-Saline & Lohr; and they want to zone State south of the airport as a business district.

The proposed adjustments to the existing business districts are interesting:

It is intended that as these areas evolve, they will become more pedestrian-friendly, have access to transit, and linkages within its open space areas. These areas are intended to evolve with a mixture of uses designed at the human scale along the major road frontages in order to accommodate pedestrians and the use of transit. Along interior roadways and drives, buildings will be designed with open spaces and larger setback areas. Much of this area is currently designed to accommodate vehicles and will therefore need to retrofit with pedestrian facilities…
Parking should be located in parking garages or in the side or rear yards.

Then there are the proposed “core nodes”:

Six areas of the Township were identified as prime locations for development or redevelopment as dense, mixed-use development nodes. These areas were selected through the community survey we conducted; respondents were asked to pick from a list of areas within the Township that might be good candidates for denser development. These areas are ideal because they are areas along existing and proposed transportation routes, areas with existing infrastructure, and areas that may provide new amenities for existing developments or benefit from new amenities. Respondents identified the following six locations as nodes for dense and mixed-use development: Washtenaw Avenue, the intersection of Carpenter & Packard Roads, Platt & Michigan Avenue to US-23, the intersection of State & Textile Roads, the intersection of State Street & Ellsworth Road, and the Ann-Arbor-Saline Road area.

The township’s proposed “core node” areas.

An overwhelming majority of respondents, over 70%, expressed a desire to see AATA services expanded within Pittsfield. Interestingly, there was not much interest in increasing the frequency of existing services.

The township’s transit plan

Establishing an identity of its own, distinct from Ann Arbor, seems to be a big concern for the planners:

“When asked where you live, only 20.6% of residents say  Pittsfield, while 51% say Ann Arbor.”

The document itself  – nearly 300 pages — is very nicely designed with plenty of eye candy, and in general seems to reflect a lot of current best practices in planning.  If you’re planning-minded or just happen, like me, to live near or even in Pittsfield, take a look.  I’m eager to hear other people’s thoughts.