Arbor Update

Ann Arbor Area Community News

Downtown Design Workshop

28. May 2007 • Juliew
Email this article

DATE: Wednesday, May 30, 2007
TIME: 6:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m. (or slightly later)
PLACE: Courthouse Square 2nd floor Ballroom (100 S. Fourth Avenue)

The Ann Arbor Design Guidelines Advisory Committee has been working to develop new design guidelines for downtown Ann Arbor. Tomorrow, Wednesday, May 30, there will be a workshop to provide residents with the opportunity to shape the design process. The consultant leading the process is supposed to be very good and enthusiastic. The agenda will cover defining character districts, urban design framework, character district design objectives, and potential tools.

As an aside, this is not the first Design Guidelines meeting. Although many people attended the Calthorpe workshops, far fewer have attended these design workshops. Below is an excerpt from the Ann Arbor News that was printed after the last meeting in early May:

Ray Detter, a member of the downtown Citizens Advisory Council, said the city needed a strong design review process.

(City Planner Wendy) Rampson said that they would have a workshop on that May 30. But a design review policy would be one of the most controversial parts of shaping the downtown, with architects and planners wary of how it could be done effectively.

Like many of the meetings on development, Wednesday’s meeting drew a familiar crowd of politically active residents who serve on neighborhood associations or city commissions and architects.

Ethel Potts, a city planning commissioner, looked around at the participants and saw only a handful of residents she didn’t recognize. “We need the general public,” Potts said. “They aren’t here. That is their choice.”

  1. “We need the general public … they aren’t here. That is their choice”

    “The consultant leading the process is supposed to be very good and enthusiastic.”

    By 9:30pm the edge on the two presenters’ enthusiasm had been dulled considerably, but victory was declared by calling it ‘two hundred person hours of urban design work’.

    I call it 3.5 hours of my life I’ll never get back, although I have to say attending the workshop turned out to be personally rewarding for reasons independent of its content.

    Re: the general public. If what’s meant by the ‘general public’ is someone who is not a present or past member of some board, commission, council, committee, or an activist with an agenda, or some other category of specialist (e.g., architect, developer), then it’s fair to say that the general public was again underrepresented. On that construal of ‘general public’ I think I was the sole representative at my table.

    It’s a challenge to get people like that to show up, because by definition we’re not ‘involved’ and therefore we’re almost by definition the kind of people who don’t show up to such events. And sometimes when non-specialists do show up, we find that the content is pitched with the vocabulary and background assumptions of specialists, which discourages future attendance.

    Granted, it’s reasonable that people should be expected to make some kind of investment in either preparation, or on-the-fly mental exertion to be able to understand the tasks making up the workshop. But surely there’s some happy medium between,

    “One way you can tell the difference between a forest and a city is by counting the number of buildings, so the first thing we’d like you to do is count the buildings in this slide and decide in your group if you think it’s a city,”


    “Should a mixed-used building with, say, a retail wrap and high transparency suitable to be experienced at 240 feet per minute, have to meet an FAR guideline, or should that be made explicit in the zoning—that’s the kind of thing we’d like to be able to answer.”

    The first I just made up. The second I jotted down last night. I might have gotten the number of feet per minute wrong, but I mean, for god’s sake, just say ‘walking pace’. We already know you went to school.

    For specialists and non-specialists alike, the large plotted map of downtown A2 with black geometric shapes for buildings and overlays denoting various boundaries was difficult to use. Lots of time had to be invested in our group in establishing what actual physical location was denoted by a circle here, a shaded area there, or a black geometric shape over yonder.

    Maybe big paper maps are what rank and file planners use, but I found myself wanting for a technology that would elicit description and reflection on specific locations from participants, instead of encouraging them to champion an analysis they’ve already done before coming. For example, if ‘Greenway’ gets added to a list of existing character districts as something that’s different from the old industrial area along the railroad track already denoted on the map, then it would be great if that list addition were more-or-less ‘computed’ by the workshop activity.

    Here’s how something like that might be computed. Present the Ann Arbor general public a virtual drive (using video footage) along every street of downtown and leading into downtown in both directions. As they’re watching, each person hits their feedback button every time they feel like they’ve crossed a conceptual boundary in the character of the way stuff looks, feel, or gets used. Repeat, using a virtual walk. Repeat Ann Arbor’s virtual tours with residents of Davis and Boulder (these cities’ approaches to design guidelines were discussed in the presentation). The follow-up to this activity for the general public to look at 6 sets of feedback points plotted to their physical location with map information suppressed (so it’s just a white field with colored dots) and attempt to discern if these points can be connected up to form bounded areas. The ‘reveal’ is adding the map information. Then you might discover that what you’ve computed is, “Golly, State Street Area really does start down by the Ford School,” or “Dang, there really is something you could call Bricktown,” or “Yeah, there already exists a character district corresponding to the Greenway, and even the plots from people who don’t live in Ann Arbor show that it’s so.”

       —HD    May. 31 '07 - 07:27PM    #
  2. I didn’t put it together until I was at the workshop, but one of the consultants was here last year and I had been very unimpressed by the workshop he led at that time. I was similarly unimpressed by this one. I think the consultants are probably great people to talk to individually. I was impressed by some of their comments in the small groups. I think they most likely do good work. But as facilitators of a larger workshop like this (or the one I went to earlier), they are just totally confusing. As HD pointed out, the maps were almost impossible to work with, the instructions were confusing, and it did seem to drag on forever. On the other hand, I always learn something in these workshops and meet people and make connections, so that isn’t so bad. And it went on long enough that I didn’t have to walk home in the pouring rain.

    Definitely there is a need for better use of technology in these workshops. Adding on to what HD suggested, I think we could create a virtual downtown Ann Arbor (SecondAnnArbor?) and then just let everyone move buildings around, create new buildings, create gateways, and then the next workshop could involve people walking around this newly created city and seeing if these things actually work. But we so aren’t there yet. I think the colored maps and monogrammed Sharpies are still considered pretty cool. I’m not sure what they will be able to get out of the maps though. Our table’s map certainly wasn’t legible.

       —Juliew    May. 31 '07 - 09:30PM    #
  3. The organization of the workshop was a disgrace. We got contradictory instructions, or instructions that did not make any sense and did not fit the documents we were given. About halfway through the workshop, the leader, Bruce Race, was talking to an assistant near our table. He said “I’m freaking” because the participants did not understand what was going on.

    Eventually, lots of people wound up writing down their various preferences a bunch of issues without using any particular format. Call it free-form urban design.

    I think the City should get a refund.

       —David Cahill    May. 31 '07 - 09:58PM    #
  4. HD,
    As I think you know, I also attended the event last night. I agree with a lot of your concerns and have a couple to add.

    I first want to say that I am glad there is a public input process, but was not all that impressed with what went on last night.

    I attended one of the Cathorpe sessions and this one seemed oddly similar. So that first of all has me wondering, what happened to the maps and the info that came out of that workshop?

    When I got to the event, I was ready and rarin’ to go. But the consultants talked for an hour before we could even get started. I found that very frustrating because they were there to hear OUR thoughts, so they should have let us just do our thing. I ended up leaving around 8:15pm because two hours is plenty of time, and apparently, if I had stayed, it would have been for quite a bit longer.

    I take issue with the format of these events. It really favors assertive (and somewhat pushy) people. There you are, sitting with 8 or so other people around a table with a map and some markers in front of you. The presenters tell you to draw something on the map, and the more outgoing people at the table jump right in. That process doesn’t accommodate other people who might not be as in your face or might not have some sort of agenda they are trying to move forward.

    That leads me to my next concern. I think a lot of people that came out to this event had agendas (especially for the Greenway). I am not going to comment on the specifics of these agendas, I just worry that those agendas might not represent how the majority of people feel in this community. But if those “other” people are not at these events, does that mean their opinion doesn’t count?

    As with Dave, I found the maps hard to use. The activity really favored people who know how to look at maps and not people who simply walk around downtown and understand it’s orientation from that vantage point.

    Thanks, HD for offering some advice. I wish I could do as much. Some of me wonders if these groups could create websites where people could add comments or input online. This might allow for a greater diversity of viewpoints and what you are going to see at these design sessions.

    Just some thoughts. All in all, I think it was worthwhile to attend the session, but I wish it was done a bit better.

       —Nancy Shore    May. 31 '07 - 11:36PM    #
  5. “HD, As I think you know, I also attended the event last night.”

    Well yeah, you were one of the people I had in mind when I carefully constructed a definition of ‘general public’ so that I could claim to be the only representative of the general public at the table—AATA board members didn’t get included in my club of the general public. ;-) Sorry if you thought I was excluding you for some other reason!

    Given that Ethel Potts was sitting right at our table, I might should have just asked her, “Who do you mean by the general public?” But right about when I was trying to figure out an angle to do that, Peter Allen said to me that I looked like I could be a developer, and he hoped I was so he wouldn’t be the only one (you’ll notice I excluded him right out of the general public category, too.) I don’t care if he was probably kidding, that distracted my focus long enough that the opportunity to broach the topic with Ethel passed.

       —HD    Jun. 1 '07 - 12:24AM    #
  6. People who get personal home visits former presidents of the United States don’t really belong in the “general public “ category either. :-)

       —Larry Kestenbaum    Jun. 1 '07 - 07:59PM    #
  7. Ha ha. And I am fine not being seen as the “general public”.

       —Nancy Shore    Jun. 1 '07 - 09:58PM    #
  8. I consider HD part of the media.

       —David Cahill    Jun. 2 '07 - 12:18AM    #