Tag Archives: zoning

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.



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.

“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.

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.

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.

Ann Arbor’s liberal NIMBYism

Ryan Avent savages liberal NIMBYism in his masterful post yesterday.    While he focuses on examples in Massachusetts and New York City, I think if you extrapolate to Tree Town he also beautifully captures what is wrong with NIMBY organizations like the Germantown Neighborhood Association and their shills on Ann Arbor City Council.   The city’s policies have consistently kept rents high in the interest of the city’s slumlords and NIMBYist property owners.  It is unclear to me why the city continues to shovel money into affordable housing when the rest of its zoning and development policy acts is designed to inflate rents and property values beyond the reach of low income people.

Avent writes,

Forget the economic benefits to the city, the people occupying the new housing units would have carbon footprints dramatically below the national average. But this basically does not matter to the NIMBYs however much they profess to care about the environment.

To the extent that public opinion matters and can be shaped, I think it would be a huge boon for humanity for attitudes toward NIMBYism to turn decidedly negative. People should be ashamed of this behavior, which is both selfish and extravagantly dismissive of property rights.

Ed Glaeser has applied these arguments repeatedly to the context of northern California, potentially one of the most carbon-neutral place in the US (because of its climate) and one of the most productive (due to Silicon Valley).  Easing new development in the Bay Area would be one of the best things we could do for our economy and our environment, but NIMBY property owners there have stymied it for decades.

Of course it’s selfish — for wealthy liberals who are also homeowners, property values trump environmental politics every time.  It’s as true in the People’s Republic of Ann Arbor as it is in NYC.  This is a symptom of a bigger policy problem, which is our national obsession with homeownership.  I would wager Detroit’s rates of homeownership in the 1960s, the highest in the country at that time, was a major contributor to that city’s collapse in the following decade.  Homeownership has pernicious side effects beyond those for individual homeowners, and one of those is NIMBYism.

As I’ve noted before, the silver lining in this is that as people continue to be priced out of places like NYC, Ann Arbor and the San Francisco Bay Area, it will hopefully generate spillover for places like Detroit (for young artists) and Ypsilanti (for students and faculty who can’t afford Ann Arbor).