Arbor Update

Ann Arbor Area Community News

Planning Commission preview, 19 April

18. April 2005 • Murph
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Tomorrow night’s Ann Arbor City Planning Commission meeting (7pm, City Council chambers) has an extensive agenda (pdf), with 14 public hearings. Most are tame: single lot annexations that probably won’t have any public comment or Commission discussion. Others merit mention:

i. Action on Glen Ann Affordable Housing RecommendationStaff Recommendation: Approval

The “action” in question is to approve on-site provision of affordable units (15% of total units); the project was approved two weeks ago with the affordable issue outstanding.

j. Public Hearing and Action on North Sky Site Plan, 26.82 acres, west side of Pontiac Trail, south of Dhu Varren Road. A proposal to construct, in six phases, 182 residential units in single-family, duplex and townhome buildings – Staff Recommendation: Approval

The site plan uses the label “Traditional Neighborhood Development” (complete with a note at the entrance reading, “proposed AATA bus stop to promote a healthy walkable community with a decreased dependency on automobiles”), and the developer, Blue Hill, has included a number of features to back this label up.

The project has a density of about 7 units/acre, with a mix of detached, duplex, and townhome structures, clustered densely around two central “community open spaces”, with a few multi-acre natural areas along two sides of the site, including a “trail easement” for a regional pedestrian trail called for in the city’s Draft Non-Motorized Transportation plan. The developer has also applied for variances to provide narrower street right-of-ways than required by code. The main criticism in the Staff Recommendation is that “private community open space tends to discourage anyone but residents of North Sky from using them.”

l. Public Hearing and Action on Upland Green Annexation, Zoning and Site Plan, 2.64 acres, 1771 Plymouth Road. A request to annex this site into the City, zone it C3 (Fringe Commercial District), and a proposal to construct a 6,142-square foot, one-story building for restaurant use and a 23,844-square foot, two-story building for office and retail uses and 146 parking spaces (some underground) – Staff Recommendation: Annexation – Approval, Zoning and Site Plan – Table

This one is almost In My BackYard, across Plymouth from the west end of Northwood Family Housing, and just west of Willowtree Apartments. My reaction: “Not!” The proposed development appears to reinforce the ex-urban character of Plymouth Road, with the single-story restaurants (between the BP station and Willowtree) set back 124’ from Plymouth, and the office and retail uses 89’ from Upland Drive, in the furthest corner from the road. The retail uses proposed will have zero visibility from the street, and almost no visibility from the sidewalk. The development is completely auto-dependant, with even the parking lots set 40’ to 50’ back from the sidewalk.

The Staff Recommendation recommends tabling the site plan until outstanding issues are resolved, but completely fails to act on the proposal’s obvious disregard for the Northeast Area Plan, which the petition cites at length. On this site, the NEAP recommends ground-floor retail, with office uses above, close to the Plymouth Road lot line and sidewalk accessible, states that parking should not front Plymouth, and recommends a neighborhood-oriented commercial zoning and not an “auto-oriented C3 zone”. The petition claims that it “attempts to address a number of the goals and objectives of the plan,” yet it appears to have been transplanted from Canton Township into northeast Ann Arbor.

Expect me to speak against it, on the grounds of being not dense enough and too pedestrian-hostile. The proposed uses could easily be combined into one 2-3 story building close to the Plymouth Road lot line, with parking accessible from Upland behind the buildings. This would both better meet the NEAP and leave the developer with the back 80% of the site open (parking or unused) for future development.

  1. 15% affordable does that mean 85% of the units are un-affordable? I took the time to speak out about affordable housing w/r/t the Eaton factory lofts a few months ago. It is nice to see those lofts are starting at the low 200’s.
       —Kat    Apr. 18 '05 - 04:36PM    #
  2. Kat, more than you wanted to know:

    The “affordable” bit means that 85% of the units will be sold at “market rate”, which means “whatever the seller can get.” An “affordable” unit must be sold/rented for no more than a certain price (set by HUD), and buyers/tenants must prove that their income is at or below 80% of the area mean income. If you want exact numbers (on allowed rent, allowed sale price, income restrictions), I can dig them up.

    The alternative to providing affordable units “on site”, as part of the development, is a “cash in lieu of units” contribution. For that, the developer pays into the City’s affordable housing fund an amount based on the difference in price between the “affordable” cutoff and the price the units are being sold for, and the City then uses that money (theoretically – none has been used yet, but this buy-out system has only been around for six months) to subsidize affordable units elsewhere.

    The 15% affordable requirement is only in place on PUDs (Planned Unit Developments) with 6 or more residential units. A PUD is what a developer asks for if they want to build something not allowable within the existing zoning; while most zoning requires the developer to follow certain guidelines, the PUD involves the developer and planning staff working out an agreement that lets the developer build what they want to build and allows the City a chance to impose some exactions in exchange.
       —Murph    Apr. 18 '05 - 05:11PM    #
  3. Hey Murph: The North Sky one is in MY backyard. Almost literally. I’d support it a little more if it weren’t going in on top of an open area already, one that’s undeveloped and open for people to walk through (which I prefer to the landscaped park across the street).
    Tell ‘em at the planning meeting that we’ve got enough housing back here, but if they could put in a couple small stores inside of that development, and make sure that the public has access to those open spaces/businesses, it’ll be better for the area in the long run. Even just a convenience store (or better, a restaurant) or something inside of the dense development will make that a) more of a public area, as people from outside will want to come in, and b) discourage more car use. This side of town should start encouraging autonomous development, so that real neighborhoods can develop, and ones that can be sustainable too…
       —js    Apr. 18 '05 - 05:36PM    #
  4. js, toss ‘em an e-mail. They do seem to actually read them, even if they get them the day of the meeting, and your e-mailing them with first-hand knowledge of the site will be more effective than my relaying in person.
       —Murph    Apr. 19 '05 - 08:30AM    #
  5. does anyone have any more insight into how the 15% affordable units works? that is, if there were actual housing units, instead of affordable fund contribution…

    what i’ve heard is this: that for those units, one-time, the city (or the developer, not sure) eats the difference between market and ‘affordable’ price. but as soon as the people living in that unit leave, they get to sell it at market rates. thus evaporating the affordability.

    i’d really like to believe that this affordable housing gambit isn’t just politics, designed to buy off a potential obstacle to getting these projects done. i’d like to believe that the affordable housing requirements, and the way the city implements them, actually changes the scene a bit, but i don’t really (pun intended) buy it.

       —bob kuehne    Apr. 19 '05 - 08:47AM    #
  6. From what I have seen, the “affordable” units in these developments are very different from the “market price” units. Much smaller and with fewer amenities. For example, an affordable unit at Ashley Mews is only about 800 sq feet with one bath. The smallest market price unit is about 1400 square feet with two bathrooms and it goes up from there. It would be a shame if the units revert to market price at sale, but they would still be a more affordable option due to their size. Another interesting feature of affordable units in Ann Arbor is the potential for people making very little money at one point in time to make a lot later. So if you are a grad student lecturer or post-doc with very little income, you would qualify for affordable housing, but within a few years might make significantly over market rate. It would be interesting to see if “affordable” units in downtown Ann Arbor actually provide long-term workforce housing or if they are entry-level houses for the rapidly upwardly mobile.
       —Juliew    Apr. 19 '05 - 09:23AM    #
  7. Not in your backyard, JS? I agree that the design could be better and commercial would be a useful addition (I’m guessing the developers don’t feel there are enough roof tops in the neighborhood to support most businesses?), but

    “I’d support it a little more if it weren’t going in on top of an open area already, one that’s undeveloped and open for people to walk through (which I prefer to the landscaped park across the street).
    Tell ‘em at the planning meeting that we’ve got enough housing back here…”

    It sounds a bit like the neighbors of “Dicken Woods.” The Northeast Area is currently the least-dense part of town as well as the area with the last few large remaining open parcels. Shouldn’t we be increasing density in the city, even over the wishes of immediate neighbors? Even if it’s not the perfect design?
       —Brandon    Apr. 19 '05 - 12:36PM    #
  8. Bob, it depends on how the developer and the city agree to set up the affordable units. At Ashley Mews, the units are owned by a city representative group (Washtenaw Affordable Housing Corp) initially, and they in turn controlled the sale of those units. The agreements on the units are that they will appreciate no more than a set percentage over time (to keep them affordable) and the units MUST be sold back to Washtenaw Housing before they can be sold on the open market. That’s how they can remain affordable in perpetuity. Other developments have some units that are initially affordable, and then open to the market after the first sale (Northside Commons had this). Other developments, like the Collegian building, have arrangements where they build an affordable unit and the owner of the building is the manager of it, to make sure that it stays affordable.

    And yes Julie, the affordable units do tend to have fewer amenities and be of more simple construction. It generally has to be that way in order to be affordable to everyone, the people buying it as well as building it.
       —KGS    Apr. 19 '05 - 12:41PM    #
  9. To add to KGS’s last bit: if the affordable units weren’t smaller and inherently less desirable than the market-rates, but were simply subsidized down, well, that means that the subsidy is being provided by making the market-rate units, uh, target a slightly higher segment of the market. The building costs the same to build regardless of whether or not 15% of the units are affordable, so the affordable units are to some extent making the other units less affordable by just shifting cost burdens around.
       —Murph    Apr. 19 '05 - 01:52PM    #
  10. Oh, and the North Sky development is not PUD, so is not required to include an affordable housing component, but they’re contributing $1000/unit to the City’s affordable housing fund anyways.

    I love how Ann Arbor’s approval process encourages outright bribery in the name of social good.
       —Murph    Apr. 19 '05 - 01:55PM    #
  11. Right, and something like the Greene St. development, which was hailed by the Planning Commission, City Council, and many students as an example of good new affordable housing for students not only doesn’t actually have any affordable units, but also doesn’t even have to pay the “bribe” because it is only six units. Sigh.
       —Juliew    Apr. 19 '05 - 03:52PM    #
  12. Murph –

    It looks like you’re on top of the Upland Green retail issue, but I have a question for you and others who might know the answers, about zoning for the ‘North Sky’ proposal. It doesn’t seem to have any provision for retail. A small space zoned for grocery shopping would help make this development ACTUALLY look like a ‘traditional neighborhood development’. My question is this – I know our zoning didn’t used to be very friendly to this sort of mixed use development, and I was wondering if that had changed. A neighborhood where your 9 year old child can walk over to the neighborhood store to get a pint of milk instead of the whole family piling in the car to get it, would be where I would like to see Ann Arbor headed.

    I’d also like to see the retail space be zoned for some other uses such as coffee and food, up to a certain time of night. Places like Jefferson Market are invaluable to creating a sense of community, but seem to run afoul of many of our current zoning laws.
       —Lisa    Apr. 19 '05 - 04:45PM    #
  13. Brandon- I supported (and still do) the Carrot Way folks back here. I’m watching crap housing go up, with huge parking lots and commuter-community aesthetics. I support increasing the density back here, but, y’know, since places like Carrot Way show that it can be done correctly, I don’t see the need to jump for joy every time a tree is cut down to build a subdivision. And frankly, I’d rather see density built up downtown, increasing it to a sustainable level, than see the slow sprawl drift out at the edges. Come on up here some time, I’ll walk you around and show you what I mean.
       —js    Apr. 19 '05 - 09:02PM    #
  14. Hah! Wireless from PharmSchool at CC Little on the way home from the Commission meeting. This post may be cut short by the bus arriving…

    js, North Sky was recommended unanimously after over an hour of discussion – no mention of retail; mostly commissioners debating over the affordable housing contribution (Required: $0. Offered: $182k. Commissioner Blake requests: 15% affordable units on site. Developer’s quick calculation: $50k/unit = $1.25 million to do that = no development. Hall, Carlberg, Bona say, “It’s a pretty good development and they’re making a voluntary aff-housing fund contribution. We oughta take what we can get.” Carlberg’s follow-up: “I don’t know that there are enough votes to get that amendment.” Blake withdraws. 20 min discussion of playground equipment.

       —Murph    Apr. 19 '05 - 11:01PM    #
  15. I’m watching it now. Potts just brought up the idea of a special meeting regarding the Greenway. It has passed despite vehement opposition by Hall. Hall does not want to hear from the public at this point and prefers to wait until the special downtown consultant discussed last night makes his/her recommendations on downtown. The others felt that getting diverse opinions from the public sooner rather than later would be helpful.
       —Juliew    Apr. 19 '05 - 11:18PM    #
  16. Lisa, to answer your question re: zoning: no, there isn’t any provision for retail mixed with residential use unless the project goes for a PUD – in which case they have to provide other public benefits like the affordable housing, etc. The PUD process takes longer too, and since time=money a lot of developers prefer not to go through it. Also there are no guarantees with the PUD process, whereas the other zoning categories are slightly more likely to succeed if you fulfill all the requirements (or if it doesn’t pass, you have a better chance of taking it to court & winning).

    I’d love for the city to radically overhaul the zoning code to allow for traditional development, but with the budget cuts in the planning staff I just don’t see it happening. Too much focus on other issues (like the greenway) and the staff is barely getting by as is.
       —KGS    Apr. 20 '05 - 09:55AM    #
  17. From a planner I’ve talked to, apparently zoning reform isn’t a “sexy” enough issue to get much movement among city policymakers. Maybe once this DDA/Greenway issue is settled that’d be something to build a coalition around?
       —Brandon    Apr. 20 '05 - 10:20AM    #
  18. More on North Sky: it sounds like a pretty nice place. I wouldn’t mind living there, though it might cause Princeton grad student housing flashbacks. Bill Kinley, part of the development team, built the cohousing in Pittsfield, and the open space definitely seems inspired by the coho idea, though there’s no common house. The Commission didn’t discuss retail at all, though the project is not actually on Pontiac Trail – they want to build another street, parallel, a block back, leaving the part on the street undeveloped for now. Could still be a place for neighborhood retail at the street.

    Lisa, the Jefferson Market is what we planners lovingly call a “non-conforming use.” It couldn’t be built today, and if it closed for too long, it wouldn’t be allowed to reopen. Zoning code = nuts. Every neighborhood ought to have a Jefferson Market-type place. I’m not sure, though, whether a commercial space that far out would do well? Seems like not a whole lot of traffic. I think JM does well by its proximity to the school over there; js, is there any similar traffic magnet up there?

    The Upland Green development, near me, was tabled, after getting more and more open during discussion. The site is, obviously, contaminated. As is, they can’t build housing on it, and can’t build anything at all on parts of the site – just cap them with parking lots to prevent leaching. (Which is why there’s a parking lot in front of the building, towards Plymouth). They’re seeking a brownfield designation, which would allow them access to funds to scrape off four feet of soil and haul it away – they’ve done borings to show that the soil is clean below that point. That would allow them to do much more with the site.

    I stood up and called myself a NIMBY, saying I didn’t want what the City’s regulations would allow in my backyard. (I was a little overly pleased with myself.)

    One of my housemates followed, and also asked for denser, more walkable use of the site, but is not accustomed to the tone of Commission meetings and didn’t quite understand the jokes around the table previously about, “Hey, do you think you could fit a ten-story building on the back of [the North Sky] site?” “If you want to approve it, I suppose we wouldn’t mind building it!” The other Upland neighbors, sitting behind us, didn’t see the humor in suggesting a ten-story building for that site. I’m not sure if, by suggesting ten, he’s made three or four sound reasonable by comparison, or if the neighbors will react far enough in the other direction to demand nothing taller than a parking lot.

    Commissioners asked whether Conlin (also responsible for the Washtenaw Whole Foods and the planned private dorm off North Campus) had considered going up to three or four stories rather than building flat. His response was that he, “didn’t want to spend money planning anything if it was just going to get shot down in Commission.” He’d rather present single-story restaurants surrounded by asphalt and get them built than a three-story, pedestrian-scaled development that will get rejected. Ah, the fine state of development approvals.

    After discussion by the Commission, though, the general feeling was that the rezoning and site plan approval should be tabled (though the annexation was approved), Conlin should discuss further with neighbors and staff and see whether brownfield designation could be achieved, and perhaps come back with something more. Conlin & staff and neighbors adjourned to the hallway to take names and numbers. (One would think the city could encourage that sort of thing at the beginning of the process, rather than using the Commission meeting as an, “Oh, you’re the developer?” meet-and-greet.)

    Conlin’s got my e-mail addr; if I hear from him, I’ll take along anybody who wants to talk Plymouth Road development.
       —Murph    Apr. 20 '05 - 10:35AM    #
  19. Hall’s position on the Greenway, as I understand it from a side conversation, is that the Planning Commission has absolutely zero power over the process, and that a hearing before them would just be that much more frustrating for participants since there’s not even the possibility for the Commission to act on people’s input. Me, I think it’s ironically appropriate: if you’re going to employ a totally ineffective participation method, you may as well do it in front of an impotent body, so that you can’t really be disappointed when nothing good comes out of it.

    It’s a problem with the way Commission’s powers and processes are defined by the City. Maybe this could be used as an opportunity to say, “Hey, City, the existing public processes are totally inadequate,” though I won’t say I’m optimistic.
       —Murph    Apr. 20 '05 - 10:50AM    #
  20. Brandon, on Monday the Council approved the hiring of a consultant to work with the Council, Planning Commission, and the DDA on issues related to revising zoning regulations and other policies. The in-depth charge is in the appendices of Section F of the most recent Council packet. I don’t know how effective the consultant will be, but I think they are pretty serious about the zoning reform, at least in the downtown area.
       —Juliew    Apr. 20 '05 - 12:00PM    #
  21. Re: Jefferson Market-like stuff … I’m having flashbacks to when I was commuting to college from Clinton Twp. Near one of the sprawling subdivision developments (so big, kids in the schools identified themselves by which “phase” they lived in) a developer wanted to build a very small strip mall—say 3 storefronts. It would essentially be on a corner near the center of the various developed “phases”—with the idea that there would be a neighborhood convenience store, pizzaria … stuff like that. The residents FREAKED OUT at the thought that their kids might hang out at a pizzaria unsupervised and stopped the project. sigh
       —Scott    Apr. 20 '05 - 12:13PM    #
  22. “Shouldn’t we be increasing density in the city, even over the wishes of immediate neighbors? Even if it’s not the perfect design?”

    IF there’s the infrastructure to support it. I remember looking at the site plan a while back but I haven’t seen the current version and whether that matches what was before the PC. Personally, I find this scatter-shot approach to density to be misguided. Sure, there has to be a first project. But shoehorning dense projects into areas of relatively low density development just seems to be a recipe for driving up City expenses without much in return. Focus density in areas where it already exists and then work your way out.
       —John Q    Apr. 20 '05 - 02:05PM    #
  23. Murph- Yeah, there’s the Steiner school right up there next door to me, and there’s one of those Gertrude’s Places (or whatever the fuck, the childcare things). And a church and a park. I figure if that area doesn’t get some to-the-street commercial development, the light industrial on the other side of the township line is just gonna become a strip mall (since it already looks like one).
       —js    Apr. 20 '05 - 03:44PM    #
  24. I’ll have to get up your way on foot sometime and check it out. Sounds like you have some degree of “neighborhood” amenity concentration to build on.

    You might also call up Blue Hill Dev. and ask them about including some neighborhood retail in an adjacent site. Tell ‘em you live up there, and that’s what the neighborhood needs – from a marketing standpoint, say.
       —Murph    Apr. 20 '05 - 05:30PM    #
  25. Julie, I read your post about the zoning change thing. Yes, the zoning is going to change in the downtown. SU has it’s own problem with restrictions of 2 stories and that will change as well, they actually started before the rest of the downtown. Many zoning restrictions are holding back some of the development that is needed for the density increase. This has been going on for a couple of years now and I think that this is the final step to the zoning changes. As I learn more I’ll keep you posted.

    I haven’t heard from you in e-mail yet. Did you lose the piece of paper I wrote my e-mail on? Let me know and I’ll get my address to you another way. Thanks.
       —Bob Dascola    Apr. 20 '05 - 10:32PM    #
  26. A new joke is floating around town. It goes like this- the one thing people hate more then urban sprawl is density in downtown.
       —Bob Dascola    Apr. 20 '05 - 10:37PM    #
  27. Julie, downtown zoning reform is a start, but I’m thinking a lot bigger. Downtown is already pretty dense and walkable… to make Ann Arbor more livable, sustainable, equitable, and, uh, eco-friendly, we should make the rest of the city more like downtown. Anyone else want to see Plymouth, Washtenaw, and Stadium gradually re-developed over several decades under New Urbanist principles? Out with the front parking lots or 1-story strip malls, in with the mixed-use multi-story buildings placed on the sidewalk. Bad suburban neighborhoods with ridiculous setbacks and street widths SOMEDAY converted to become more urban? Imagine the developer being able to build good (and more profitable) places as-of-right. We get more density and livability, they get few hassles jumping through PUD hoops. Other cities, like “conservative” Grand Rapids, are implenting form-based zoning… you’d think with a democratic supermajority and a supposed commitment to the environment, equity, and good planning, that Ann Arbor, too, would be a leader. It sounds so simple, so easy, so logical, so uncontroversial on paper, doesn’t it? Sigh.
       —Brandon    Apr. 21 '05 - 12:02AM    #
  28. Brandon, unfortunately, it’s not as easy as you and I think it should be. When Commission discussing the Upland Green proposal last night, the neighbors who live on Upland were happy to have one-story restaurant and two story office buildings surrounded by asphalt (and who can blame them, in comparison to the junkyard that’s there now?), but they were absolutely apoplectic at the suggestion that maybe the developer could think about five stories on the site. Even three or four – too high. “Nothing on Plymouth is that tall! It’s totally out of scale!” said a neighbor in the hallway after the meeting.

    Well, yes. Exactly. That’s the point. The current scale of Plymouth blows, and I’d like to see something a little better one of these days. “Fits into the existing context of Plymouth” is a major strike against a development to me. Basically what I asked Commission for was form-based zoning on Plymouth. “I don’t care what it is; I want it to be at the sidewalk, 2-4 stories, with parking behind.” I suppose the other neighbors had form-based zoning in mind too, in the opposite direction – “form-based” implies that you’ve agreed on a form.
       —Murph    Apr. 21 '05 - 01:16AM    #
  29. I guess the greatest problem with urban development is that once you build a neighborhood, neighbors will oppose any deviation from its current form, no matter how awful it is.

    Why, why, why the fear of THREE STORY buildings?

    Murph—after the Greenway issue’s settled, we should start a public education/lobbying/activist organization supporting urbanism and ultimately zoning overhaul in Ann Arbor. Apparently even the Sierra Club wouldn’t be opposed to that…
       —Brandon    Apr. 21 '05 - 02:19AM    #
  30. I think we know a planner with some slides we could probably borrow, too…
       —Brandon    Apr. 21 '05 - 02:21AM    #
  31. Hey, I started talking to my father about this area, and he notes something that I must have missed back when it was happening: that the subdivisions fought tooth and nail against any retail going in up on Dhu Vahen, apparently for no good reason. The place where we now have Gretchen’s House was supposed to be a convenience store or restaurant.
    Ah well.
    Murph, if you wanna come on up, just lemme know.
       —js    Apr. 21 '05 - 10:24AM    #
  32. js, it’s because commerce is dirty – full of moneychangers and other undesireables you don’t want in your neighborhood. They have to exist, sure, but I want them to exist over there. My ancestors didn’t claw their way out of the tenements so that I could live upstairs from a grocery store, darn it!*

    There was, actually, some element of this in the hallway outside the Commission meeting, when one of the neighbors suddenly had the horrified thought, “Restaurant – wait a minute, is there going to be alcohol served in the neighborhood?” Not that there’s a liquor store kitty-corner across the intersection, or anything, but we’ve got to be ever vigilant for people who want to have a glass of wine with their dinner.

    * My ancestors didn’t claw their way out of the tenements at all. The first North American Murphy in my line was a farmer outside of Windsor.
       —Murph    Apr. 21 '05 - 10:39AM    #
  33. I must have been feeling a bit overly optimistic/idealistic when I wrote that last night due to lack of sleep.
       —Brandon    Apr. 21 '05 - 12:03PM    #
  34. “I guess the greatest problem with urban development is that once you build a neighborhood, neighbors will oppose any deviation from its current form, no matter how awful it is.”

    Well, I can’t resist the opportunity to say I told you so.

    Until you can get these citizens input upstream in the process (Master Plan), you will never ever get true density in Ann Arbor, and we will continue this slide into chains and covenant-style neighborhoods.

    All the Urban Planning in the world won’t help until you can remove citizen’s input from individual projects. Move their input to the Master Plan.

    You should put that last paragraph on your walll so that you don’t forget it. :)
       —Todd Leopold    Apr. 21 '05 - 12:19PM    #
  35. Well, but that assumes that your Master Plan was done well, and that your staff planners applied it to the individual project in a competant fashion.

    The NEAP addresses the junkyard specifically, saying, “neighborhood-oriented commercial, rather than auto-oriented”, “retail should be close to the Plymouth sidewalk”, “no parking on Plymouth – parking should be behind the commercial uses with access from Upland.” This proposal includes retail at the far corner from the street, large setbacks from both streets, commercial-in-sea-of-parking style buildings, parking fronting the Plymouth sidewalk, and parking access off of Plymouth.

    The staff review (by Coy Vaught and Mark Pratt), reads, “This project significantly advances the goals of the NEAP with regards to providing neighborhood-oriented commercial uses.” Bull-oney. Times like this, we need citizen input on individual projects in order to make sure the Plan is actually followed.

    (quotes paraphrased since I don’t have the staff recommendations within reach at the moment.)
       —Murph    Apr. 21 '05 - 01:19PM    #
  36. Well, technically speaking, the planning commission is the “citizen input”. They aren’t professionals, and they are supposed to be reviewing projects to see if they conform with Master Plans and building codes. If you want them to change how they behave, then either change the Master Plans or change the building codes. Allowing them to bow to neighborhood pressure will never get us anywhere.

    I can’t speak to perceived incompetence, and you’ll get no argument from me that our disperate “Plans” are a complete mess. The citizens who are doing the complaining need to get to work on the Master Plan, and remove themselves from specific issues. Until this happens, all the planning or zoning changes in the world won’t do a bit of good.
       —Todd Leopold    Apr. 21 '05 - 02:02PM    #
  37. Todd, as far as I can tell the problem is that only an educated few who know where to sign up and who have copious amounts of free time can participate in an area planning process like the NEAP. What about the parents with kids who need sitters, the people who work full time during the day, and the people who weren’t living in that neighborhood when the master plan was done? don’t they have a right to have input, too? And how can you design a master plan that can realistically incorporate citizen input when (1) the group gets too big – and the NEAP citizen commitee was WAY too big and (2) no one will like everything, so no one can agree to the compromises made (another problem with the NEAP)?

    As to why people fight so hard against commercial uses near their houses, it really is beyond me. Personally I love having a corner store that I can buy milk at within walking distance. And FYI, Gretchen’s House is a commercial use too, and that was fought hard too. shakes head in disbelief
       —KGS    Apr. 21 '05 - 02:30PM    #
  38. I hear what you’re saying about time constraints. Maybe these planning meetings can be moved. I know that the Wash. County planning meetings were at pretty convenient times. Maybe I’m being naive.

    What I do know is that citizens always manage to find the time to protest development in their neighborhood each and every time it comes up. I’d like to move this input further upstream is all…..Maybe we will find out things like we found from the Greene St. protesters….that they actually enjoy diversity (read: students, diverse income) in their neighborhoods, and that the size of the building wasn’t the issue at all. In other words, the building could have been taller if it was designed well. What a missed opportunity!

    Citizens in Ann Arbor will never give over their ability to block specific projects (they’d call if facism or something like that), so this is a bit of a moot point on my part.
       —Todd Leopold    Apr. 21 '05 - 03:29PM    #
  39. Todd, one big problem is that, early in the planning process, the investment of time is high relative to the perceived personal utility. When an objectionable, specific proposal pops up near your house, however, the investment of time is similar, but the perceived personal utility is suddenly very high. I don’t think there’s any way to reduce the perception of the time investment required. I think the only way to reduce the utility of case-wise protest is to disallow it, which, as you note, will never fly politically, and which I think can be a good thing in the case that it really is a bad development and the staff planners are falling down on the job. So what’s left is to increase the perceived utility of participation in the early planning process. How do we do that? (Besides the fact that we’re doing it right now, I mean.)

    (I think that the Planning Commission is a poor representation of citizen participation. How many of them are youth or students? 0. How many of them are minorities? 0. How many of them are below median income, or rent their homes? I’ll bet 0. They’re a poor cross-section of the population, and therefore are ill-equipped to handle certain discussions of welfare. They also don’t know every area of the city first-hand – to their credit, many of them do seem to visit proposal sites before discussing them in meetings, to get some idea of the context, but that still doesn’t necessarily equate to “local knowledge.”)
       —Murph    Apr. 21 '05 - 04:10PM    #
  40. Hey, I’ll be the first to admit that the planning commission isn’t really a representation of the community as a whole. You’ll note that they asked me to give it a go (BTW, they chose a woman instead because the mayor wanted more diversity…a good decision in my book), and I don’t exactly represent anything other than the majority.

    I was hoping that the planning students here at ArborUpdate would be able to answer your question as to how to encourage early participation. I don’t have an answer. Internet? Polls as to what people want in town? Have citizens define the phrase “dense development? Ya got me. I just make beer and booze. All I know is that all this after-the-fact criticism of development is killing this town, and it needs to stop.

    I will say that I disagree with your assertion that sometimes we need citizen intervention to avoid bad projects. There has to be a better way to avoid bad projects. Hell, an grad student advisory commitee from UMich U Planning would be a better solution than that.
       —Todd Leopold    Apr. 21 '05 - 05:12PM    #
  41. This all reminds me of the one the points Kunstler’s:”” makes in “The City in Mind,” when he talks about Paris. Basically, he argues, Paris is the great city it is because Napolean was a dictator that valued good planning and a good planner had the ear. He didn’t have to take citizen input into account and could plow his 6 lane boulevards through wherever he thought appropriate. Now, I don’t know enough about the history of France nor planning to really judge that argument—but it seems like, when it comes to cities, sometimes a benevolent dictator can be a good thing. =)
       —Scott    Apr. 21 '05 - 05:21PM    #
  42. I think taking people out of the process on individual projects is exactly the wrong thing to do. It only serves to alienate everyone. The Master Plans are nice goals or overall ideas but they aren’t that useful for specific developments. Local residents or business owners know more about their immediate neighborhoods than anyone else. A smart developer will use that knowledge to build something better. The problem now is the process is inherently combative with no early local input and ridiculous requirements of a developer way too early in the process. It is possible to have developments where the city, the developers, and the neighbors all win.

    That said, the Planning Commission and City Council do need to have a Master Plan, ordinances, requirements, zoning (or not), and a process that work for the city and will stand up in court. They don’t have this now and some developments get approved, but shouldn’t, while other developments don’t get approved that should.

    Murph, weren’t you talking about getting a group together to try to come up with recommendations for the process?
       —Juliew    Apr. 21 '05 - 05:55PM    #
  43. Developers might consider showing videos of places like the Jeff (as my son and his friends call Jefferson Market), and others that work, to the neighbors early on and let them give feedback on which type of development they would like. That may not result in three-story buildings and more density, but it could be a start in that direction, one that builds some trust maybe.

    If the local perception of a proposal is of a 7-Eleven style convenience store, selling beer, cigs, and junk food, their input is likely to be defensive.
       —Steve Bean    Apr. 21 '05 - 09:00PM    #
  44. Julie, talking I was, but then the semester happened.

    The general idea I was thinking was for a neighborhood master planning – something closer to the 2000-5000 person level, rather than the current area master planning process, which handles a quarter of the city at a time (~27000 people). This would have to be a neighborhood-run process, since it’s not something that the City would probably run until it had been shown a good idea.

    This would allow for more fine-grained planning; for higher-level, more in-depth participation (rather than everybody in the Northeast Area getting three minutes to talk at a few public hearings); &c. Some constraints would need to be considered, such as “must accommodate at least x% growth”.

    Scott, the problem with benevolent dictator planners is that that’s basically how the USA ended up with urban renewal, and the interstate highway system, and then the second round of urban renewal, and all sorts of other bad ideas.
       —Murph    Apr. 21 '05 - 10:40PM    #
  45. Ya’ll do realize that the new NE Area plan hasn’t been adopted yet, so technically planners aren’t supposed to be using the draft plan as their basis, right?
       —Brandon    Apr. 21 '05 - 11:20PM    #
  46. I’m all for neighborhood level planning but you do know that it would lead to every vacant parcel being designated as a park, every multiple being downzoned to single family and no streets could ever be widened unless it wasn’t my street and then it would be OK. The other challenge is that you run into the opposite of what happens with the NE area plan – everyone is so focused on their little neighborhood that no one is paying attention to the big picture and ensuring that the choices made at the local level work together. Look how Michigan makes a mess of local planning – we can’t coordinate regionally because we focus too much on our own local situation.
       —John Q.    Apr. 22 '05 - 08:50AM    #
  47. It has worked in other places. What you describe is certainly a risk, but with a planner guiding the process and with certain guidelines imposed on the process (eg absorbing x% population growth in the neighborhood), it can be overcome.
       —Dale    Apr. 22 '05 - 09:38AM    #
  48. What Dale said. Plus the added check that the City can always choose to pass on the material in the plan if the neighborhood comes up with something just plain bad.

    Oh, and not widening streets is a good thing, not a foolish act on the part of the neighborhood. Maybe impose a “no cul-de-sacs and no curving streets” rule on the process, though.
       —Murph    Apr. 22 '05 - 09:59AM    #
  49. I think you would be surprised at the result of real neighborhood level planning, especially given, as Murph says, certain necessary parameters. As Todd pointed out, the neighbors around the 828 Greene St. were not opposed to higher density, but were opposed to the particular building that was proposed. You should have seen some of the alternatives that the neighbors discussed (the neighbors include an architect, a water resource expert, artists, students, landlords, homeowners, and local downtown workers of all income ranges): four-story residential with first floor retail, tall back-to-back condo-style developments which could eventually include several other lots on the street, a co-housing development, apartment buildings with only bicycle (no car) parking, green sustainable apartments or condos with passive and active solar and gray-water recycling systems, working with Avalon housing on affordable and low-income housing units. But no, we end up with yet another three-story brick apartment building in a neighborhood with several mostly-empty three-story brick apartment buildings. The only difference is that the rent in the new apartments is going to be twice as expensive as rent in the existing ones. So yes, I think neighborhood input is very valuable and necessary in order to prevent bad buildings and promote good ones, as long as it is done while also meeting the needs of the city as a whole.
       —Juliew    Apr. 22 '05 - 10:10AM    #
  50. Bean- The easiest answer to keeping a 7-11 out? Make the building a two-story, not a stripmall. In my fantasyland, that’d be a grocery/convenience/deli store and a restaurant above. It could go on the giant lot of the failing pool repair place that’s right there now.
       —js    Apr. 22 '05 - 10:44AM    #
  51. Murph: “Scott, the problem with benevolent dictator planners is that that’s basically how the USA ended up with urban renewal, and the interstate highway system, and then the second round of urban renewal, and all sorts of other bad ideas.”

    No, you see, those dictators weren’t benevolent. Well, and neither was Napolean, really, except in a planning sense. (And really, I was joking. But sometimes I sympathize with the dictatorial desires of planners).

    John Q: ”... no streets could ever be widened unless it wasn’t my street and then it would be OK”

    That’s fine. Mostly, we don’t need wider streets. They kill ped-friendliness, usually. Fighting street widening is one thing neighborhood associations and nimbys are good for.
       —Scott    Apr. 22 '05 - 11:18AM    #
  52. “So yes, I think neighborhood input is very valuable and necessary in order to prevent bad buildings and promote good ones, as long as it is done while also meeting the needs of the city as a whole.”

    Amen, Julie. Now how in the heck to we get citizens to get involved in neighborhood planning so that we get out of this cat-and-mouse game of “I want density, just not here, and not this specific design”? How can we get citizens to meet with developers/DDA/whomever so that they can take their share of the density burden? How can we avoid having citizen input at the point where the building is already designed, and the architect is sitting in front of the Planning Commission?
       —Todd Leopold    Apr. 22 '05 - 11:25AM    #
  53. Todd, a few ideas for earlier input with burdens on various parties:

    * Developers need to proactively seek out neighbors and neighbors’ opinions. A good developer will root out stakeholders, figure out what their concerns are, and design with those concerns in mind, rather than either submitting a lousy design in order to avoid coming under fire (Upland Green) or submitting a lousy design that fits the zoning and ignoring the neighbors, knowing that it can be rammed through legally (828 Greene).

    * The City should require statements of intent from developers, maybe a month before anything is submitted to the review process, so that neighbors can be notified: “This developer is planning to develop retail and residential on this site; here’s his contact info.” Proposals need to be posted on the Planning website as they are received. Staff Recommendations on proposals need to be posted. All of this should be archived and cross-referenced to the Commission and Council minutes at which the proposals were discussed, so that people can go back and see just what the heck has gone on in the past. The City should undertake fine-grained master planning that meets city- and region-level goals, but does so with a solid understanding of neighborhood-level context.

    * Neighborhoods should have designated contact people so that developers and city planners can easily and quickly contact them, and need to be willing to come out at the beginning of a project, or at the beginning of a planning process. The contact info piece is currently the case (looking at the City’s website) across only about a third of the City’s geography. The “willingness to come out at the beginning of the process” is something that’s pretty generally absent from American culture.

    * The UM urban planning, architecture, and SNRE departments should provide an easy mechanism for converting “students helping out with neighborhood planning processes” into 1-credit independant studies. Currently, getting involved in local issues is a drain on our mental resources; I trade off grades for involvement; most students aren’t so interested in making that choice with their time investment. It’s only those of us who can justify it to ourselves as “I want a job around here, so this is professional development,” who can afford to get involved.

    * The AAPS should include civic engagement in the curriculum from an early level. Perhaps start at 4th grade, since that’s the general “local history” year. If you want to create walkable communities, though, 10-year-olds are the experts you should be turning to. If you want to create “cool cities” that people will stay in, angsty high schoolers will be happy to give you frank analyses of absolutely everything that sucks about their town and why they’re planning on leaving the second they graduate. This is useful input. The schools have an active role to play in planning.

    * Guys who own brewpubs need to host community gatherings. You got a date set yet?
       —Murph    Apr. 22 '05 - 12:23PM    #
  54. Looks like the third sunday in May.

    I actually got a great third party….Kiwanis club wants to turn parts of the area in front of their building into a park. More later, but they’ve got some neat plans that don’t really conflict with either the DDA or the Friends/Sierra.

    This has been difficult to pull together, to say the least.
       —Todd Leopold    Apr. 22 '05 - 12:41PM    #
  55. Todd,
    I don’t understand what you said about the Kiwanis. Are you referring to their building at 1st and Washington? Given that that building is bounded by 1st on the east, Washington on the north, the railroad on the west, and the Pig on the south, what do they plan to do?

    (I enjoyed the hefeweizen the other day, btw.)
       —tom    Apr. 22 '05 - 01:19PM    #
  56. They own large parcels to the east of that building, across the street.

    Glad you enjoyed the beer. Thank you.
       —Todd Leopold    Apr. 22 '05 - 01:23PM    #