Tag Archives: walkability

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zoning, the handmaiden of Ann Arbor NIMBYs

The Chronicle recently reported on the denial of a rezoning request on a parcel of South University between Washtenaw and Forest Avenues.   The piece ignited another spirited comment thread on the city’s zoning policies.

The general sentiment  in Ann Arbor, based on what I gather from reading public commentary at meetings as well as online comments to news stories, appears to be that the city’s zoning is a sacred covenant between the city and residents.  Exceptions to the zoning of a particular area violate that covenant, and provoke  reactions such as these (paraphrased by Mary Morgan):

“All of the planning commissioners spoke in support of the current zoning, saying that the community had reached a hard-won consensus that was not to be overturned lightly.” “(E)veryone relies on zoning to be stable, not changed because of someone’s preference.” “To make a change now for the adjacent property would be harmful to… any sense of integrity that the city might retain – integrity that a developer would rely on to do business in this town.” “It’s time to adhere to the rules that were established.” “Why aren’t these zoning decisions respected?… Why are they being challenged?”

While I am sure that these sentiments are representative of homeowners & other residents in the older neighborhoods near Ann Arbor’s central commercial districts, I personally don’t share them (as some of my readers may recall).  Nor do I see any reason that Ann Arbor’s current zoning should be treated with such reverence.  Let me enumerate a number of concerns I have with Ann Arbor’s current approach to zoning, and the philosophy that underlies it.

First, it tips the scale of private property rights over to the side of the neighbors, and away from the rights of the owner of a particular parcel to do what they wish with that parcel.  It thereby codifies the existing neighbors’ perceived self-interest (or, more succinctly, their NIMBYism) permanently into law, without regard for the interests of potential future residents or property owners.  (By the way, there’s nothing that enrages Ann Arbor residents more than being called NIMBYs — is there an equally succinct but more politically correct term I should be using?)  As in, I live here, and I have the right to tell everyone else in my neighborhood what they can and can not do with their property.

Ann Arbor’s zoning also privileges the status quo to a degree that I find irrational.  If the city’s current zoning policies had existed in, say, the 19th century, it would still be a village of a few thousand people, and the university would have to transport the tens of thousands of its students, faculty and staff in from surrounding areas.  (Which is what it increasingly does today.)

As a commenter on Megan McArdle’s blog observed,

I grew up in a small vacation town, it was amazing how residents fought every kind of new development… even though almost every resident had moved there from somewhere else.  They basically wanted move there, then fight tooth and nail to pull the drawbridge up behind them.

Privileging the status quo also correlates with Ann Arbor residents’ “small is beautiful” ethos, which its large Baby Boomer population seem to have carried with them from their formative years in the 1960s:

Snyder asked what had happened to the Ann Arbor that had been a true university town – with a sprawling campus and trees, as typified by the Arboretum and Burton Tower. When and why had the city and university decided it was better to build up? he wondered. But he quipped that UM’s buildings have managed to keep below the low-flying cloud height. Questions like “How big is too big?” and “How tall is too tall?” keep being redefined, Snyder said.

Homeowners view density as a threat — something requiring a buffer to protect them from the unspecified evils that it apparently entails:
To rezone the parcel would take away the buffer between Forest Court and the densest D1 development of South University, (one homeowner) noted.
Another is paraphrased as calling “(t)he property…  the textbook definition of a buffer area”; a third explains that “Residents don’t want to live next to Main Street” while a fourth “argued that any attempt to characterize the neighborhood (in which the parcel in question is located) as primarily student housing is wrong.”  (On the contrary, based on my experience living a couple of blocks south of this property a few years ago, I can attest that it IS PRIMARILY STUDENT HOUSING.)
Mother Jones writer Kevin Drum ventures his own theory about the widespread antipathy to density  (h/t McArdle):

 I don’t care what you say your objection to a new building is, about 99% of the time the real objections are noise, congestion, and traffic. That’s it. Everything else is just cover.

While residents are careful never to say it, the city’s zoning policy also has the implicit perceived benefit of keeping out the undesirables.

The advantages of preserving the status quo are subjective to a certain extent.  In Ann Arbor, outside the core areas surrounding downtown and Central Campus, that status quo is 1950s-vintage Euclidean zoning, strictly segregating residential and commercial uses, encouraging single-family housing with setbacks over multi-family dwellings, and prioritizing the needs of drivers over those of pedestrians and other non-car commuters.   It is a land use model that still appears to have plenty of loyal fans.

But Ann Arbor’s zoning has a number of ill effects that are less easily debated:

  • By reducing density, it hinders methods of transit besides the car;
  • It limits the potential patronage of businesses in the area;
  • It reduces the amount of property taxes the city could collect from additional residents and/or businesses that are crowded out by the zoning;
  • It reduces the access of families to walkable neighborhoods, which exacerbates obesity (as children get used to riding in cars rather than walking/biking to their destinations), and costs taxpayers more (in school busing).

I seem to be the only person who thinks this is bad apart from the developers.  The rest of the community seems to love being able to exercise veto power over changes to their neighborhood.  I am very gradually coming to accept that I’m in the extreme minority among Ann Arbor residents in my opinion.  Permanent residents seem to want the community to remain small, medium-density,  and low-rise.  As long as they can tolerate the property taxes that accompany the city’s high home prices, we can expect the status quo to continue.

But if that’s the case, the city should probably stop shoveling money into environmental and sustainability initiatives that are undermined by its own zoning policies.  It is ironic that the Chronicle story that inspired this post was accompanied by a report back on a land use and sustainability forum the city held on February 9.  Encouraging greater density is by far the most significant investment in sustainability the city could make, but it is an investment Ann Arbor residents are fighting tooth and nail.  What is the point of these investments when they are undermined and counteracted by the city’s own zoning?

PS:  As always, I could not have written this post without the efforts of Chronicle staff.  Please consider donating to the Chronicle here.

Results from WDET’s “Detroit Move” Survey

WDET conducted a survey last month centered around the question, ‘What would it take you to move to the city of Detroit?’ The station’s analysis of the results of that survey have been out for several weeks now, so I figured it was well past time for me to post on them.

The response far exceeded the expectations of WDET’s staff:

We set a goal of 1,000 responses in seven days. We met that goal in 48 hours, over the course of a weekend. A total of 2,200 respondents were collected at the end of the week, making this the largest known data set of it’s kind.

It’s so rare to see quantitative data on people’s attitudes about moving to Detroit, which up til now have mostly been captured in a jumble of conflicting anecdote.  As the introduction to the summary notes,

The latest iteration of the persistent “Detroit authenticity/Detroit love”  battle shows little evidence of the participants actually engaging with the arguments/ ideas of  the other side. Instead, there is a lot of interaction with existing beliefs, misremembered history,  convenient reformulations of the past and a willful disregard for “live and let live” acceptance.

WDET wisely engaged the services of a social scientist, a PhD candidate at Brandeis named  Sara Elliott, to help design the survey.  The survey questions they developed were concrete and specific, and admirably, Elliott and her collaborators at the station steered clear of extrapolating too much from the results.

Still, when ’84% of city residents said they would be unlikely to move to the suburbs in the future,’ I suggest we’re a bit closer to guessing why, in spite of the conventional wisdom that Detroit is a dying city, over 700,000 residents remain.  Those who survived the exodus of the 2000s are a resilient bunch and have compelling reasons to stay.

Another interesting data point pertains to how Tree Towners and other Washtenaw residents view the city:

Paradoxically, a smaller percentage of survey takers were from Washtenaw County and this group comes to Detroit less frequently than those living in Wayne or Macomb counties, yet this group was the most likely to say they would be likely or very likely to move to the city in the future (50%). The next largest group of respondents who said they would be likely or very likely to move to the city in the future lived in a county other than Macomb, Oakland, Washtenaw and Wayne (outside Metro Detroit) (42%). Smaller percentages of survey takers from Wayne (35%) or Macomb (34%) counties and Oakland County (31%) said they would be likely or very likely to move to Detroit. The largest group of survey takers was from Oakland County, but they were least likely to say they would move to the city in the future.

Responses to the statement ‘I would support a friend or family member’s decision to move to the city of Detroit’ were more positive than I’d have expected:

There is data to back up an observation that I’ve seen made frequently (and have made myself), which is that younger people view the city in a more positive light than older generations:

Over half (55%) of those under 25 years of age said they would be “likely or very likely” to move to the city in the future, compared to one third (36%) of those 26-45 and one-quarter (24%) of those 45 and above. As age increases, likelihood of moving to the city decreases significantly.

And there are some clues for whoever ends up in charge of the city as to what priorities they should focus on:

A few factors stood out as mattering to more of the respondents who said they were likely or very likely to move to the city in the future…

  • Better city services (57% of likely movers compared to 51% of unlikely movers)
  • Better public transportation (60% of likely movers compared to 36% of unlikely movers; this factor rises past lower crime to the #1 issue among the very likely subset respondents) 
  • Increase walkability (53% of likely movers compared to 41% of unlikely movers)

Note the walkability figure;  in spite of pockets like Greektown, Midtown, Corktown and Mexicantown (basically any neighborhood ending in ‘-town’), Detroit lags many of its suburbs in that respect.  Also, the most likely recruits appear to be swayed more by service provision (including both schools and transit) than by “lower taxes” or “better jobs” which are way down the list.

Surprisingly, I haven’t seen reaction to the survey from Detroit’s other media outlets such as the Free Press or the Metro Times.  Perhaps they were embarassed they didn’t think of it first.

For more, check out the summary of the survey results (PDF).

School busing in Ann Arbor

Ann Arbor Public Schools’ proposed cuts to busing has provoked lots of parental whining on AnnArbor.com.

Raising the cost of getting kids to school is one of the many costs of sprawl that are not factored in when our elected officials subsidize development in outlying areas.   Nobody ever thinks school busing might get cut next time there’s a downturn.  The homebuyers don’t think about it when they buy the place, and the realtors never suggest they think about it.

Families planning to have kids would do well to recall this story when they start looking to buy a home.  Lots within the city may be smaller, the homes older, more modest & more expensive, but at least there are sidewalks so your kids don’t have to walk in the street.

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.

I’ve never before heard of the Governors Highway Safety Association…

But it kind of sounds like it is run by idiots.

For more reasons than one.