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.)
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.