Arbor Update

Ann Arbor Area Community News

City Council: Near North, R4C and R2A Moratorium, and Gredening

6. August 2009 • Juliew
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City Council: Thursday, August 6 at 7:00 pm.
Ann Arbor City HallAgenda


  • Revenue Projections
  • Rezoning of Near North Proposal area (626-724 North Main Street) to PUD
  • Resolution to impose a temporary moratorium on all new development that requires site plan approval, expansion of existing development that requires site plan approval, or zoning changes within the R4C and R2A zoning districts in conjunction with the study and revision of the zoning ordinance pertaining to these districts
  • Update on Public Art Plan

  1. The first Council meeting back from a presumably failed primary election is always tough on Councilmembers who don’t win because they are still in office until the general election. This one might be particularly hard for Greden given the vitriol over his ill-advised e-mails and other actions he has taken over the years. There are many people who are very glad to see him off Council. Judging by the e-mail I have received today, I’m guessing some of them may be at the meeting tomorrow.

       —Juliew    Aug. 6 '09 - 05:03AM    #
  2. The moratorium failed, but in a sneak attack, a resolution to appoint an historic district study committee for a two-street area between William and Packard (including S. Fourth and Fifth) was introduced and did pass. With that designation, an immediate six-month moratorium on “work,” including demolition, begins in the proposed area starting tonight.

       —Juliew    Aug. 7 '09 - 07:32AM    #
  3. It was a brilliant and Solomonic solution to the problem.

    Near North passed on first reading with almost no debate. The revenue projections were grim – Tom Crawford predicted “meaningful service impacts”.

       —Vivienne Armentrout    Aug. 7 '09 - 07:00PM    #
  4. GAH! If North Main and a block south of the Downtown Library aren’t appropriate spots for denser development, where do we want buildings to go? To me, this seems beyond absurd.

       —Matt Hampel    Aug. 7 '09 - 08:36PM    #
  5. Downtown, Matt. Downtown. (Defined by all relevant City documents as the DDA boundary.)
    That is, if a market for dense residential buildings ever develops in Ann Arbor. Plenty of empty apartments and condos in buildings already up, and plenty of empty lots where more are approved to go.

       —Tom Whitaker    Aug. 7 '09 - 11:08PM    #
  6. Downtown, Matt, downtown. Except in the greenway. And the historic districts. And the surface parking lots. And the stuff that should be historic district, but isn’t. Yet. And the edges, where it would loom over not-downtown stuff.

       —Murph    Aug. 8 '09 - 04:08AM    #
  7. It’s so frustrating to read these snide comments.“Downtown” is a very clearly defined area — where density belongs. The surface parking lots are exactly where we should have density but the developers don’t want to pay for proper downtown land when they think they can grab up the surrounding neighborhoods a block away, for less money. It’s ridiculous to assume that residents will roll over for the “honor and privilege“of having their neighborhood destroyed by morally bankrupt developers for big ugly buildings that we DON’T NEED. Creating cheaply made units that will be more expensive to rent than what is already there. I’m really confused why this is such an affront to some (supposed) A2 residents. Good urban planning doesn’t try to create a housing crisis that doesn’t exist, nor does it try to influence the market. Downtown has an abundance of empty units. Why should we even consider the destruction of surrounding neighborhoods when there is no market for the units that would be created and the units downtown are not selling? Really, I’m asking. Because I just don’t get why there are people so upset that the developers aren’t allowed to build, build, build. Who is going to live in these units?
    Dense cities are great. If you want to live in Chicago, I don’t blame you. It’s a great city. Move there. But Ann Arbor is not Chicago. I’m sorry if it’s not big enough or dense enough for you.

       —suswhit    Aug. 8 '09 - 05:14AM    #
  8. There seems to be a generational conflict. People in their 20s and sometimes 30s seem to have bought into the idea that if we just build densely enough, young people will have affordable housing with no parking problems where they can walk to everything they want to do. The realities of the market seem to escape them. (Clue: developers actually want to make money and are not building for altruistic reasons. No opprobrium implied, that is just what they do. But it doesn’t make for cheap nice downtown housing.)

    Murph, you know, is actually not an Ann Arbor resident. He is a UM urban planning graduate who lives in Ypsilanti. Not to say he doesn’t have a right to an opinion about Ann Arbor. Like it or not, we are the urban center of our little pond and everyone nearby has some sense of ownership.

       —Vivienne Armentrout    Aug. 8 '09 - 05:46AM    #
  9. If urban planning doesn’t try to influence the market, why do we zone?

    I’m happy to have my credentials challenged, but please don’t set this up as a generational conflict between clueless young professionals and seasoned, worldly neighborhood residents. That’s just not how it is. I don’t think developers are altruistic. I have a fairly decent sense of the student housing stock, and it would be hard to sync those two viewpoints.

    What is the cutoff for local? Because I live near Packard, does that mean I should not approve of denser housing blocks away from Main Street, Liberty, and Central Campus?

       —Matt Hampel    Aug. 8 '09 - 07:08AM    #
  10. Sorry, Matt, I don’t know anything about your credentials and am not challenging them. (And certainly not Murph’s.) But I do see a distinct generational tinge to the discussion (over many years now) and a resentment of the (older) folks who are simply trying to, yes, preserve what they consider the good environment they live in.

    As for the tenets of New Urbanism, I like the model too but not some of the ways it has been applied in Ann Arbor. Why do we have zoning? To see that use follows public wishes. I loved Rich Hill’s lecture on it a few years ago.

    The last time we had a real effort to gather any public comment in a visioning context, we came up with the Calthorpe report, which does as I recall leave those near-downtown neighborhoods more or less alone.

    Speaking of denser housing – there is a great opportunity for a true mixed-use development at the corpse of Georgetown Mall. Anyone got any ideas on how to jump-start that? The area needs services one can walk to and they are losing their Kroger.

       —Vivienne Armentrout    Aug. 8 '09 - 04:19PM    #
  11. If you have a good sense of the student housing stock, then you know that 2000 new beds will be added to the mix by next summer (1400 beds are already online between Courtyards, Zaragon and 411 lofts—600 more with North Quad opening next year). Last I heard, the private student developments were averaging 66% occupancy. Maybe because the rents are through the roof and UM enrollment was flat last year. UM dorm renovations will make the existing on-campus options more competitive, too.

    When challenged, no one promoting density and more buildings can answer the question, “if you build it, who will come?” Good jobs are needed first. Google? These are ad sales jobs, not high-tech, exciting opportunities for recent UM grads, yet the City bent over backwards to give them tax incentives and hundreds of spaces in our parking structures.

    Where is the market for all this density? Plan for the potential, fine. Create design guidelines for it, fine. Zone for it in the proper downtown boundary, fine. Good planning should anticipate where the market may want to take us, and provide rules that regulate the market toward a future that is consistent with master plans created with maximum citizen input. There’s a big difference between regulation and manipulation.

    Good urban planners and City leaders do NOT create or promote a non-existent housing crisis, then attack property owners who bought their homes with the expectation that the City’s current master plans were valid and would be enforced by the City. These master plans, after all, were created with the professional oversight of qualified urban planners, too.

       —Tom Whitaker    Aug. 8 '09 - 06:35PM    #
  12. Didn’t homeowners in West Burns Park area, near Golden, just rail against two-family homes? And wasn’t that in part a push to get students to live elsewhere? So there’s part of your rental market right there.

    I am no longer a young professional (sadly) and I think that the New Urbanism ideas put forth by Murph and others make a lot of sense. Also, if the city remains unfriendly to business, unwilling to bend to get jobs into downtown, then those jobs will move to the fringe and McMansions will follow. Doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that.

    Watching wizened residents cling to “the good old days” is a kind of sad.

       —just a homeowner    Aug. 9 '09 - 12:27AM    #
  13. Vivienne, the good old days just aren’t going to be able to be held onto. There is just too much going on, and it’s out of everyone’s hands. Just some people don’t understand yet what has been happening. Take the Greden thing, I think that a lot of council people will be losing their jobs in the near future. The area is overbuilt, and for now, the market is just dropping, both residential and commercial. For example, I believe just about every apartment complex on Packard has vacancies currently.Think about that means for the area.

       —emilia    Aug. 9 '09 - 12:43AM    #
  14. suswhit –

    My “snide comments” are the result of watching Ann Arbor’s development system limp brokenly along for the last 8 years. (Not how long it’s been broken, just how long I’ve been watching.)

    I will certainly agree with Vivienne and Tom that the market’s not there now for a lot of the projects that have been discussed – Glen Ann Place , for example, won their appeal two years ago, and no action’s happened there, because the market won’t support it right now. A year and a half ago, I was calling University Village a joke , based on, yes, the number of student housing units already built or in the pipeline, on-campus and off- and the fact that there is no market for such a project.

    Nor do I think that any new construction is good new construction. I’ve vocally disliked various projects, proposed or built, over the years, and by no means think that “morally bankrupt developers” – if such strawmen are in fact whom we’re talking about – should be allowed to build, build, build whatever they like.

    What “affronts” me is the process, and the way in which Ann Arbor addresses development – Vivienne and Tom speak to zoning and master plans as if they are, as written, perfectly accurate guides to development. (And, further, as if these documents are actually seriously considered in the process as it stands.) The formal planning documents were acknowledged as just plain not working anymore back around 2004-05, at least, sparking the Calthorpe process that Vivienne mentions. At that point we saw some brilliant tactical work by a small group of people, who literally counted cards to get themselves assigned one to a table during the public meetings so that they could derail the process.

    My other favorite example is a Planning Commission public meeting on the Northeast Area Plan, 6 or 7 years in the making (master plans are, legally, supposed to be revisited for revision after 5 years…), during which a number of people claimed that the recommended land uses were too dense, and would degrade the Huron River, even after the Huron River Watershed Assn’s representative stood up and called for /greater/ density in this area, in the name of watershed health. Things like this give me a pretty healthy skepticism of people who claim that “good urban planning” wouldn’t support any kind of development.

    And, in fact, good urban planning really does try to influence the real estate market. In fact, “influencing the market” is pretty much the sole purpose of zoning ordinances – any time a developer requests a rezoning, a PUD, etc, is an example of the existing zoning not matching the market. (If it did match, why would the developer – the guy trying to make a buck in the market – be asking for a change?)

       —Murph    Aug. 9 '09 - 01:13AM    #
  15. And thank you, Vivienne – I think it’s been a good long while since somebody challenged my right to an opinion while explicitly claiming not to.

       —Murph    Aug. 9 '09 - 01:18AM    #
  16. Murph, I truly think you should have opinions, and value them. After all, aside from your professional credentials, you’ve been a thoughtful observer of it all for some time. I also agree that our planning process has been chaotic. I was just clarifying for a previous commenter that not all “opinionaters” were Ann Arbor residents.

    Ha – shows the role of perspective – among my acquaintances the urban legend about the Calthorpe process was that it was front-loaded with UM planning students. I’m not aware of any card-counting scheme, but what do I know?

    I haven’t contributed to an earlier thread about what kind of growth etc do we want because I figured I could expound more reasonably in my own blog. (And haven’t had enough time yet.) But I’ll just say that there are clearly different visions of what kind of city we want this to be. And yes, I believe that the residents of a city should be the chief people consulted about its direction. Given that, we haven’t done very well in the past few years in sorting out all the issues and conflicting goals to chart a clear course. But it’s good that we are having the conversation now.

       —Vivienne Armentrout    Aug. 9 '09 - 01:59AM    #
  17. “Watching wizened residents cling to “the good old days” is a kind of sad.” What did I say about the generation gap? I’m happy to say that I haven’t developed many wrinkles yet. I’m too well-fed to be wizened.

    To clarify – I was not arguing for stasis, but for the right of people in neighborhoods to claim, literally, some ownership over the direction of that neighborhood. Preservation of assets is not the same as trying to stop all change.

    A nervous inquiry: are we getting off-topic?

       —Vivienne Armentrout    Aug. 9 '09 - 02:52AM    #
  18. Well, frankly Murph, I’m speaking directly to the issue of the city place project. I’m not arguing about what happened in 2004 or who sat at what table at the NE Area Plan meetings. The residents in the Germantown Neighborhood have had to fight tooth and nail against a developer trying to threaten his way into being allowed to build a massive PUD (totally inappropriate in size and scale for the existing neighborhood) so that he can fix his own financial mess. In order to get his PUD he’s threatened to build what he had the “right” and made it as ugly and offensive as possible – blatantly pushing every possible loophole. When the neighbors stand up for themselves, well, the response here is to be maligned for believing that the master plan is a meaningful document. Called morons by a certain council member. And holy cow, we are somehow responsible for 8+ years of a “broken development system.” Yeesh. That’s a lot of blame. I can’t figure out how we deserve that. And what I really don’t get is the jump to “a request for a PUD, etc, is an example of the existing zoning not matching the market.” Is it never that a request for a rezoning is a developer trying to manipulate the system? Put a project where it’s cheaper because he doesn’t want to pay the price for the area where he wouldn’t require a zoning change? A planning document says, for example, a factory belongs in a certain area but someone already owns a bunch of land in say, your neighborhood. If the factory will create new jobs is it a sufficient benefit that all the houses on your entire block be torn down and replaced by a tax paying factory using the reasoning that the existing zoning doesn’t match the market demand for new jobs? And I really would like you to imagine that it was happening on the block that you and your family love in Ypsi. (According to the Concent article.)
    By the way, I wonder how you would have felt back in ’96 when the city of Ann Arbor rejected a certain by-right project at the corner of Ashley and Huron. For a drive thru….dum, da, de, dum….Burger King. Aren’t you quoted in the same Concent article saying you don’t care what goes in the Water Street project, so long as it’s dense? Hmmmmm…..had the “by-right” Burger King gone there then we wouldn’t have the high density condos that are there now. Amazingly, the council at the time had the guts to say “no.” (Even with the threat of a lawsuit —which never materialized.) Such a complicated world we live in.
    Just because a neighborhood fights a project that would destroy it doesn’t mean we are opposed to new development, don’t like student housing, are trying to derail progress, are unwilling to bend or unfriendly to business. But, that seems like the conclusion of a few vocal “forward thinkers.”

       —suswhit    Aug. 9 '09 - 02:53AM    #
  19. Hey, what happened to my comment?

    Anyway, based on #3 above (thank you, Vivienne A.), the PUD passed, so we will see “development” on N. Main, as Matt would approve.

    FWIW I don’t think we’re off-topic at all.

       —Young Urban Amateur    Aug. 9 '09 - 05:16AM    #
  20. Just as a point of information, the Near North PUD passed on the first reading, but it is clear that the second reading (a month later, I believe), which will include a public hearing, will be more contentious. It seemed from what I could glean that there are ongoing discussions between the neighborhood and the proponents, especially Avalon.

       —Vivienne Armentrout    Aug. 9 '09 - 05:21AM    #
  21. @Young Urban Amateur— I don’t think we’re off-topic either :-). For the record, I don’t think any of us removed your comment. At least, it’s not hiding in the system.

    In any case, I did read the Chronicle’s council report this morning, and I was happy to see both people speaking in support of Near North and that it passed. I’m even happier to hear that there are active discussions. Any idea why there weren’t dissenters at that meeting?

       —Matt Hampel    Aug. 9 '09 - 07:34PM    #
  22. I want to be certain Matt and others recognize that Near North (a PUD — in other words, and ordinance change) passed FIRST READING. It still must come back for a public hearing and second reading before it has passed, is approved, and can be built.

       —Sabra Briere    Aug. 9 '09 - 08:05PM    #
  23. “In fact, “influencing the market” is pretty much the sole purpose of zoning ordinances – any time a developer requests a rezoning, a PUD, etc, is an example of the existing zoning not matching the market. (If it did match, why would the developer – the guy trying to make a buck in the market – be asking for a change?)”

    Have you ever worked in the private sector Murph? You’ve written a lot of insightful commentary on planning generally and in the area, some of which I agreed with, some not. But this comments is so textbook based and not reality based that I have to recommend that you spend a few years working in the private sector before going down that road again. If you really believe that’s how “the market” works, you’ve been spending too much time in the ivory tower of academia and not enough time in the real world of development.

       —John Q.    Aug. 10 '09 - 02:32AM    #
  24. As if market based solutions were the only answer. Can anyone say housing bubble? Developers manufactured a desire (home ownership) and the means (business model based on short term profits) to satisfy the desire. Government assisted by promoting a market solution of (unsustainable) growth (the “ownership society”) that fed the bad business model.

    In the short term, who benefited? In the long term, who lost?

       —Rick C    Aug. 10 '09 - 05:25PM    #
  25. Yes, for the record, I realize Near North only passed first reading. There will be ample opportunity for dissenters to show up for the public hearing.

       —Young Urban Amateur    Aug. 11 '09 - 12:04AM    #
  26. I hear that the neighbors have filed petitions opposing the Planned Unit Development for Near North. That means City Council needs 8 votes out of 11 to approve the PUD, not merely 6.

       —David Cahill    Aug. 11 '09 - 05:12PM    #
  27. David, I believe that’s 9 votes out of 11 that will be needed. I recall that a protested rezoning requires at minimum a three-quarters vote. Three-quarters of 11 is 8.25, and since nobody can vote one-quarter of a vote, it has to be rounded up and not down.

       —Leslie Morris    Aug. 11 '09 - 06:27PM    #
  28. Nope, just 8 votes are required. Here is the language from the City Code on protest petitions to rezonings:

    A protest against any proposed amendment to this chapter may be presented in writing to the City Clerk at or before the public hearing thereon. Such protest shall be duly signed by the owners of at least 20% of the area of land included in the proposed change, or the owners of at least 2O% of the area of land included within an area extending outward 100 feet from any point on the boundary of the land included in the proposed change, excluding any other publicly owned land. Following the filing of a valid protest petition, adoption of an amendment to this chapter shall require at least 8 affirmative votes of the Council at the second reading on the ordinance.
       —David Cahill    Aug. 11 '09 - 08:45PM    #
  29. That certainly is clear enough. I was remembering the Bird Hills condominium rezoning vote many years ago when Bob Harris was mayor. Neighbors protested (and had raised money to buy the land to expand Bird Hills Park). It was stated at that time that a three-quarters vote would be necessary for the rezoning, that is, 9 votes. And the rezoning did get the necessary 9 votes. Perhaps there has been a change since then.

    I will dare to predict that the Near North project will get the 8 votes.

       —Leslie Morris    Aug. 11 '09 - 09:14PM    #
  30. I think Vivienne is right about a generational divide, though I disagree with her characterization that this development preference is naive.

    There are significant changes taking place in housing preferences, especially among younger residents, but also among middle-aged and older adults. I think the naive perspective is trying to build more ex-urban development.

    Christopher Leinberger, a UM prof, illustrated this point by noting how entertainment has changed over the last 50 years. What was the setting of most 50s/60s-era sitcoms? They were in the burbs (think Leave it to Beaver, The Brady Bunch, etc.).

    Where are most contemporary sitcoms set? In the cities (think Melrose Place, Friends, Seinfeld, etc.).

    Leinberger backs this up with more detailed market and demographic analysis, but I think the point is a solid one. I do think we need to take these changes into account as we think about how Ann Arbor will develop over the future.

       —Chuck Warpehoski    Aug. 12 '09 - 07:11PM    #
  31. I did not use the word “naive”, though on rereading my post I can see how my analysis might have been summarized that way. However, it was not pointed at the development preference but at the underlying hypothesis or model of cause and effect, namely that increased high-density development will result in affordable, accessible housing for young people. I try not to characterize any person or group of people with labels, so I apologize if it came across that way.

    There is clearly a legitimate and understandable yearning on the part of young people (we’ll define that as under 40) to have a satisfying and supportive environment in which to live. The goals of walkability, easy access to services and work, a lively social milieu, and other amenities like open space, are obviously desirable. But the result of this yearning has been to accept what I consider to be a false set of assumptions regarding the connection between dense development and affordability. I also have found it disturbing that there is a distinct tinge of envy and resentment in statements about the people (especially in the near-downtown neighborhoods) who are, after all, pursuing much the same set of goals for their own lives. It seems to be okay to apply labels to people who are often slightly older and have managed to buy a house in an established neighborhood.

    “I think the naive perspective is trying to build more ex-urban development. “ (see Chuck W’s comment above): this is not the subject under discussion. The subject under discussion is the destruction of existing neighborhoods in pursuit of an ideal that will not necessarily materialize. Ex-urban development (i.e. sprawl) has (fortunately) been stopped more or less in its tracks by the economic slump and the puncturing of the housing bubble. But those of us living in established neighborhoods in Ann Arbor were not aspiring to that in any case.

       —Vivienne Armentrout    Aug. 12 '09 - 08:14PM    #
  32. You could also claim it’s all purely self-interest, if the people in favor of increasing the housing supply are more likely to think of themselves as future buyers of housing, and those against increasing housing supply are more likely to think of themselves as future sellers.

    I’m not sure where any of this gets us.

       —Bruce Fields    Aug. 12 '09 - 08:21PM    #
  33. Re [30]: Leinberger is first and foremost a developer, not an academic. He got smart before the bubble burst and found a day job as an adjunct and author. It should be noted that his book is titled “The OPTION of Urbanism” [emphasis added]. Having taken a class from him and seeing him speak separately at TCAUP, I can tell you that the word “option” is key.

    Leinberger documents the rise of the “drive until you qualify” suburban sprawl that started in the 50’s and contrasts it with earlier, more organic settlement patterns that were pedestrian or horse transport oriented. Economic reality and environmental concern, collapse of the bubble, and changes in personal preferences are now leaning toward a resurgence of the older urban model.

    The important thing to take from Leinberger’s book is that this “new urbanism” is only one of several OPTIONS that people can now choose from when deciding where to live. He does not endorse razing healthy city neighborhoods and replacing them with large, mixed-use buildings, nor does he promote tearing down the suburbs and planting crops. He makes a case for the economic and environmental advantages of the urbanist model, but at the same time, he makes it clear that different people want different things and that it is important that there be a variety of housing options available.

    I write this because so often you read postings from people who have drunk the new urbanist koolaid who sound an awful lot like the urban renewal advocates of the 50’s and 60’s. They sound like they endorse clearing out neighborhoods that ironically are already functioning as the urbanist settlements they are endorsing.

    Having lived in St. Louis in the 60’s and 70’s, I saw first-hand the failure of well-intentioned urban renewal projects. Entire neighborhoods of homes were removed and replaced with cold towers that were soon abandoned by the occupants, who found no community or “sense of place.”

    “New Urbanism” is an urban planning theory (and development marketing tool) that makes a lot of sense. But as with all such theories, when they are applied to the real world, the existing built environment and the preferences of the people who already live in it need to be taken into account. Unless you are Tom Monaghan, or your city is destroyed by a disaster, there are no new opportunities to build a city from scratch using the popular urban planning theories of the day.

    And I agree with Vivienne that it is a myth that more density will lead to more affordability. The new developments in Ann Arbor are very expensive, whereas the older apartments, in homes or older buildings, are much more reasonable. Some new buildings, when the market is ready, could have a positive competitive impact on the quality of housing overall, but don’t think for a minute that any newly-constructed building will be offering cheap rent to the average person, unless they continue to have high vacancy rates and start slashing prices.

       —Tom Whitaker    Aug. 15 '09 - 12:52AM    #
  34. “Some new buildings, when the market is ready, could have a positive competitive impact on the quality of housing overall, but don’t think for a minute that any newly-constructed building will be offering cheap rent to the average person, unless they continue to have high vacancy rates and start slashing prices.”

    This isn’t what I’ve heard from Murph and others. They’ve made the argument that this new construction sucks students out of the older apartments and creates more housing (and cheaper rents) in that market, not in the new shiny towers. I’m skeptical of his belief in that process. As long as Ann Arbor is a desirable place to live, there’s going to be pent up demand for any housing and you’ll have to build a lot of new units to overcome that demand. The concern that many people have is that to build the number of units to reach a point where you are actually creating affordable housing opportunities by expanding beyond the demand, you’ll have to intrude into neighborhoods or create negative impacts to accomplish that.

       —John Q.    Aug. 15 '09 - 02:52AM    #
  35. Er… Have you talked to a landlord lately? Have you called the rental offices of the new developments? We are already way past the point of having more than enough units to meet the demand, pent up or otherwise.

       —Tom Whitaker    Aug. 15 '09 - 05:27AM    #
  36. I’m wondering whether we will continue to have UM students whose parents are wealthy enough to finance the high-end new student-dedicated apartments. I’m sure there are still plenty out there with lots of money, but it would be interesting to know how changes in the investment market have affected the ability to pay for a child at Zaragon Place along with all the other expenses.

       —Vivienne Armentrout    Aug. 15 '09 - 05:30AM    #
  37. “And I agree with Vivienne that it is a myth that more density will lead to more affordability. The new developments in Ann Arbor are very expensive, whereas the older apartments, in homes or older buildings, are much more reasonable”

    Ah. Clearly, then, the solution is to build more old buildings.

       —Bruce Fields    Aug. 17 '09 - 01:30AM    #
  38. “Er… Have you talked to a landlord lately? Have you called the rental offices of the new developments? We are already way past the point of having more than enough units to meet the demand, pent up or otherwise.”

    That’s not my position. But I think that unless you believe that the local economy is never going to turn around, it’s not wise to making planning decisions based on today’s economy. You have to plan for the long-term. Michigan has been through bad economic times before. Housing development cratered in the early 1980s. At some point, this too will turn around. The question is how to handle demand when it comes.

       —John Q.    Aug. 17 '09 - 04:53AM    #
  39. <<But I think that unless you believe that the local economy is never going to turn around, it’s not wise to making planning decisions based on today’s economy. You have to plan for the long-term.>>

    This totally baffles me. Why would anyone want to build if there is no demand? And what bank would loan money for someone to build additional, unneeded housing stock “because they were optimistic?” And who will pay the bills while these units sit empty wait for the economy to turn around?

    So rather than “build more old buildings” why don’t we keep the ones we already have and wait to build more when there really is a demand for them?

    (fyi, PLANNING for development is great. Ann Arbor should give that a try — unless you think the Central Area Plan and Master Plan already did that. But allowing someone to destroy a thriving neighborhood under the pretext of higher density does not constitute good planning.)

       —suswhit    Aug. 17 '09 - 06:40AM    #
  40. Planning for development isn’t about what is being financed and built today. Anything being approved today is based on whatever planning decisions have been made in the past 10 years. The discussion needs to move to what people want to see in the next 25 years.

       —John Q.    Aug. 17 '09 - 07:50AM    #
  41. John Q: “As long as Ann Arbor is a desirable place to live, there’s going to be pent up demand for any housing [and therefore little opportunity for building our way to affordability]”

    Agreed – and my primary interest in urban construction is providing for pent-up demand (the option of urbanism, as Tom references) rather than building until the exhaustion of demand. (In some ways, a condition the entire country is simulating right now.)

    Part of why Ann Arbor’s residential market is so attractive is because it does provide a good range of options, including some generally undersupplied. That includes “downtown apartments”, as well as “homes on tenth-acre lots in walking distance to amenities”. It’s challenging to provide the latter within any kind of proximity to downtown, except for one-off infill construction, ADUs, and similar drops in the bucket. It’s more realistic for more peripheral locations – as long as we look to those locations as overall human-friendly areas. (These days, I think the Area, Height, Placement work that A2’s planning dept/commission is doing is probably more important than the A2D2.) The only significant development proposal I remember in the last several years for this neighborhood-level density is North Sky, up on Pontiac Trail(?).

    Tom – I think the implication that I’m a New Urbanist is more painful than the one that I’m a carpetbagger. As you note, New Urbanism is less a planning issue than a brand name, and, like many marketing-driven architectural schemes, can be about as context-sensitive as the latest Gehry pile.

       —Murph    Aug. 17 '09 - 09:07PM    #
  42. I’m glad you brought up context-sensitivity because that is exactly what the fights over City Place, Near North and the Moravian are all about. So why the verbal eye-rolling when people who chose to live downtown long before it was cool, object to these monstrosities?

    Further, once again you are claiming there is a pent-up demand, when I am seeing vacancies in new and old buildings alike and hear from landlord friends that the market is soft across the board. Exactly what segment is being under-supplied and where are you getting the information? To me, this is just hype being perpetuated to justify the gutting of well-functioning neighborhoods in the name of density (by starry-eyed planners who are behaving more like promoters), or potential increased tax revenue (by politicians), or potential profits (by developers).

    Let’s either talk about good planning theory, what is sustainable and what provides for a healthy downtown, or, let’s talk about the latest Ann Arbor development proposals. From where I sit, the two topics are at opposite ends of the spectrum and these proposals in no way represent the proper application of “state of the art” planning theory. Ironically, Near North, thanks to substantial subsidies, is probably the only one with a chance of making any money for the developers in this over-saturated market.

       —Tom Whitaker    Aug. 18 '09 - 08:36AM    #
  43. I agree with Mr.Whitaker and suswhit. I certainly am not as educated and articulate as most of you here. But I am likely a longer resident of the city than most of you. And for what that is worth I see a lot of this desire for density agenda driven, An idea that a place, A2 in this case must adhere to the latest popular trend in urbanism and the rest be damned. My thought is if people want to join urbanism move to a big thriving city there are many. If you want to help create urbanity Detroit is an ideal place. But for those of us that want A2 to look like A2 a midsized college town ………

       —ziggy selbin    Aug. 18 '09 - 08:15PM    #
  44. The idea that there is “pent up demand for any housing” is silly at best. Ann Arbor has high rental vacancy rates and a stagnant home sales market (with falling prices). The new density-driven development will likely cause higher rates of vacancy in existing, older housing stock without causing any increase in the City’s population. The City’s population hasn’t grown appreciably in the last few decades and is unlikely to do so in the next few.

    So, the question isn’t about how to accommodate growth (density vs. sprawl) but instead is about what kind of City do we want. I believe we want a high quality, livable city, not some sort of urban experiment.

    We need to amend our zoning regulations to promote quality, rather than quantity (density). We should actually address affordability rather than replace current actually affordable dwellings with statutorily defined affordable housing that is more expensive than that which was replaced (S. Fifth historic homes / City Place).

    I agree with ziggy, small town Ann Arbor is not an urban area. Detroit, Chicago and other large cities are where urban experimentation belongs.

       —Jack Eaton    Aug. 19 '09 - 12:03AM    #
  45. Jack, I think few would question the current market demand in town. But it wasn’t true a few years ago and I very much doubt it’s a long-term trend. It’s true in the city and I think it will be true in the suburbs. As much as everyone thinks the latest economic troubles are “the end of sprawl”, the same kind of downturn in the 80s didn’t end sprawl then and I don’t expect it to end now. You point out that the city’s population hasn’t increased in the past several decades which is generally true (although it has continued to grow). But the population in the surrounding townships did explode in that same time period. The tens of thousands of people that moved into Pittsfield and Ypsi Townships were almost entirely in a sprawl growth pattern. To pretend that there’s no connection between the two is to ignore reality. Over the long-term, the Ann Arbor metro area will continue to grow. It can either grow out or grow up.

       —John Q.    Aug. 19 '09 - 01:33AM    #
  46. But it is well documented (though I don’t have it at hand) that much of the growth in Washtenaw and Livingston Counties was from migration from Wayne and other Detroit ring areas. The total population in the greater SE Michigan area hasn’t been growing. Further, a lot of those migrants still had jobs where they moved from and became long-distance commuters. I suspect that many of the jobs have evaporated. (Unless you really believe that the auto industry will rise again in its former guise.) Unless our state’s general economy picks up to real growth again, rather than merely recovering to about where it was, there is little reason to suppose that we’ll see the real estate boom of the 90s and early 2000s again soon. I’ve been reading a number of essays and books about the fallacy of thinking that the past decades represent the natural order of things and that the future will be a reflection of the past. At a minimum, this should be questioned. Energy? Global warming? None of us can confidently predict the future now, so we should become adaptive and embrace the concept of complexity rather than linear thinking.

    Also, who decided that the current residents of Ann Arbor have to surrender quality of life for a hypothetical population to come? If growth comes, it will find its level. We don’t need to anticipate it by taking away the ability of our current local community to prosper.

       —Vivienne Armentrout    Aug. 19 '09 - 02:52AM    #
  47. “If growth comes, it will find its level.”

    Vivienne, please describe how that process has played itself over the past 30 years. Describe the townships of 30 years ago to their current state. Or look at NE and the southside of Ann Arbor proper which are for all intents were the first wave of suburban sprawl. You’re right, one can’t assume that growth will come. Perhaps Ann Arbor’s metro area will continue to stagnate or decline in population. But if growth does come, it has to go somewhere. If your preference is for more sprawl in the townships, say so. But let’s not pretend that the choice doesn’t have consequences.

       —John Q.    Aug. 19 '09 - 05:44AM    #
  48. The new density-driven development will likely cause higher rates of vacancy in existing, older housing stock without causing any increase in the City’s population.

    As a renter, that sounds great!
    When can we begin?

    Of course shouldn’t support any old development idea thrown our way, particularly something obnoxious like City Place or the derailed Bluffs project from some years back. Increasing available accommodations for those of us in the “work force” crowd is key.

    Yet, to see average local rents and home prices remain flat, or even decline a little, brings some long-awaited relief. This needs to continue, and to be encouraged. I wish not to join a future sprawl exodus. We experienced many years in the not-so-distant past with 1% vacancy rates for A2 rentals (anywhere near the center of town), a situation that allowed landlords to abuse tenants by charging premium prices for poorly maintained, mediocre units in old buildings. For home buyers, as was the case in Royal Oak outside Detroit, a stock of older homes that were affordable 30+ years ago gradually became among of the most expensive in Michigan, given what they are. As working class punters were steadily pushed out, my sympathies for A2 homeowners eroded.

    Will not, in any way, shape or form, share nostalgia for the decades of escalating home prices (beyond inflation) or the desperate search for even a half-way reasonable A2 rental option. Given the events of this decade especially, it ought to be quite redundant to say that housing has long since become an investment racket that benefits some land owners at the direct expense of the general population. And not just the big developers, either. The joy that any number of well compensated, home-owning professionals felt a few years ago as the value of their homes went toward the stratosphere was not unlike the dot com exuberance of 1999. More reasonably, I prefer speculating on tulips.

       —yet another aging boomer    Aug. 19 '09 - 07:07AM    #
  49. I suppose I’ll 2nd “yet another aging boomer” on this. What is the likely consequence of limiting new housing in Ann Arbor? I assume that that may mean putting it in the townships. I recall that when there were objections to the Greenbelt arguing that it would reduce the housing supply supporters responded that rather than increasing sprawl that it would result in more density in A2 proper. Since then, most “more density” projects have met with resistance.

       —Pete    Aug. 19 '09 - 08:20AM    #
  50. What I was trying to say is that if we truly have a demand push for growth, innovative ways to accommodate it will emerge. Tearing down existing housing stock and ruining current neighborhoods in a prospective effort to prepare for future growth at a time it is not occurring is what I am objecting to. I am not saying that I prefer sprawl as the alternative. I reject the notion that it is an either-or choice. And I’m sorry, but I don’t think that events of the past 30 years are necessarily a guide.

    Regarding that sprawl, why do density proponents continue to assume that people who moved to Scio Township in search of a 5-acre lot with a big house would willingly exchange that for an apartment in a high-rise near downtown? Recent history certainly doesn’t support that – several such projects have failed to get built. Most successful recent projects seem to be using our captive (affluent) student population as the last profitable target. That has nothing to do with sprawl.

    One of the directions for new housing that I have been observing with some pleasure is the infill development that has been occurring in odd spots that were vacant. Compact houses and small condo developments that are consistent with the overall scale and appearance of the neighborhood are increasing density in a modest incremental fashion. That seems a more organic approach to increasing housing density across the city.

    There are now, incidentally, a number of empty houses on my side of town, and in talking with a broker whom I know, I hear that modest houses are available at very reasonable prices. Now that the boom is over, housing is accessible again. I consider that a good thing (never did think those high price made sense).

       —Vivienne Armentrout    Aug. 19 '09 - 03:33PM    #
  51. “why do density proponents continue to assume that people who moved to Scio Township in search of a 5-acre lot with a big house would willingly exchange that for an apartment in a high-rise near downtown?”

    Vivienne, why do you assume that they assume that? :-) I bet if you asked them what they think their assumptions are, they’d respond.

    John Q., one (the major?) reason the coming 30 years won’t be like the last 30 is because we’ve passed the peak in world oil production. We may also start to see carbon taxes or other economic mechanisms that will provide incentives for more dense development, whether in the city or the suburbs.

    Regarding population, recent predictions place the peak for the global number somewhere between 2040 and 2050. That range has shifted forward in time (that is, it will occur sooner), compared to earlier predictions, if I remember correctly. With Obama lifting the “global gag rule”, and with peak oil behind us, it may shift into the 2030-2040 range. US population will likely peak earlier than the world, and Michigan even earlier—it may have already. People will continue to move around, but it’ll be fewer people in the shuffle. For Ann Arbor’s population to grow in the future, a number of factors would have to favor it, and that seems unlikely. (Yes, we have fresh water, but it could turn out to be a small, temporary draw—not big enough to lead to a new population peak.)

       —Steve Bean    Aug. 19 '09 - 10:20PM    #
  52. Steve, I was responding to the frequent statement represented by this comment above from John Q:

    “But if growth does come, it has to go somewhere. If your preference is for more sprawl in the townships, say so.” Over and over again, beginning at least with the Downtown Residential Taskforce, linkage has been made between sprawl and downtown density. The thesis has been that we must increase downtown density to avoid sprawl. My point is that two different demographics are most likely in play. It may very well be that some people might willingly consider both a suburban house with a big yard and a downtown condo/apartment with access to urban amenities, and choose the second after an initial preference for the first. But I doubt there is a great deal of overlap between the groups who would choose one or the other.
       —Vivienne Armentrout    Aug. 19 '09 - 11:44PM    #
  53. I don’t disagree with you Vivienne that a certain amount of sprawl comes from people who are never going to be interested in living in the city. Let’s agree that nothing the city does internally is going to affect that. But there’s plenty of people living in suburban apartment complexes, starter homes subdivisions and mobile home parks who can’t afford to live in the city. In part, this is due to job and transportation mismatches where people are forced to spend income on transportation to get to a job that they could spend on housing if the job was located in the city. But in many parts of the city, the housing costs price out people who are forced out into suburban locations to afford a home to live in.

       —John Q.    Aug. 20 '09 - 12:39AM    #
  54. Yes, I agree that there is an affordability problem at the level you (John Q) are describing. That is a complex problem with different approaches needed than a market-based downtown density strategy (where costs will be high).

       —Vivienne Armentrout    Aug. 20 '09 - 02:03AM    #
  55. John Q – What part of the current proposals for density make it likely that any new developments will be more affordable than developments built without the proposed changes to zoning regulations? Both the A2D2 and the AHP proposals offer minor incentives for so-called-affordable housing. The statutory definition of “affordable” allows rents that are often in excess of the rents available in the buildings being replaced by the new developments.

    The density proposals that are being pushed address quantity of housing, not affordability. Simply building too much expensive housing in town will not attract people who live in apartments and trailers in the surrounding townships. Both the Ashley Tower and the 4/11 Lofts are dense development. Neither present a model of affordability.

    Density as a development concept in a small town is merely an untested theory. Ann Arbor is consistently ranked as “best” in many livability indexes. Many of us want to maintain the qualities that make Ann Arbor best, rather than experiment with density theories.

    Our government should be pursuing an active development agenda that actually improves the city. For example, we should develop the greenway as a means of improving both the livability and the natural environment of the downtown area. Of course, that kind of development doesn’t enrich real estate speculators, so it’s unlikely to be part of the discussion our Council will entertain.

       —Jack Eaton    Aug. 20 '09 - 02:09AM    #
  56. Jack, I sympathize with your desire to maintain Ann Arbor’s livable qualities. But those qualities stem directly from the fact that Ann Arbor’s core is relatively dense. Density was the development concept behind Ann Arbor’s development, and behind just about every human settlement until the late 19th century, when new forms of transportation arrived.

    Today, people in Ann Arbor’s older, dense neighborhoods may still enjoy access to corner stores within a five minute walk. Most of the city’s population doesn’t. I, for one, growing up near Clague School, would have liked to have had that option in my neighborhood. Without new development, no one in that area ever will.
       —Joel Batterman    Aug. 20 '09 - 05:25AM    #
  57. Jack – I wasn’t arguing that any new development by itself would bring affordable housing opportunities. I was stating that some believe (although I do not) that expanding the inventory of new housing units at the top of the rental market would help reduce demand at the lower and mid-level market which would reduce rents and increase the number of affordable units. My personal belief is that Ann Arbor will continue to attract new residents even as new housing units are added so that you won’t see the decrease in rents or an increase in affordability. My belief doesn’t translate into a position for or against more density or more high-end rental units. I just don’t think it will positively affect affordability opportunities as others do.

    I find your argument against density to be puzzling. You claim that Ann Arbor is a “small town”. In comparison to what? San Francisco? New York City? It’s the largest city I’ve lived in and it’s one of the largest in Michigan by population. As I stated before, a large percentage of Ann Arbor is suburban in development and density. But the areas that seem to be at the center of the current debate are not suburban at all. I assume you’re not arguing that Ann Arbor needs to be more suburban in nature?

    As Joel noted, much of the “qualities” that you imply about Ann Arbor come from the density that exists. Without that density of the downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods, Ann Arbor has a density and development pattern of a Troy or Livonia. This map from SEMCOG illustrates that point nicely:

    Remove the density of downtown and the surrounding areas which range from 8 units/acre – 30 units/acre and you couldn’t support the transit system that Ann Arbor has. You also would not have the population base to support the range of cultural activities, community organizations or businesses that are available in Ann Arbor. You would be Livonia or Troy or Farmington Hills.

    I’m not sure what exactly your approach will accomplish. I agree that the city should be pursuing an agenda that improves the city. But that won’t lessen the housing demands. To the contrary, the more attractive a place you make the city, the more people who are going to want to live there. Your approach seems to take the attitude that the demand can just be ignored and there will be no impact by doing nothing to address that. I think history has shown that the head-in-sand approach doesn’t work and failing to have a plan for future growth only ensures that when it comes, it’s handled poorly.

       —John Q.    Aug. 20 '09 - 07:25AM    #
  58. “Both the Ashley Tower and the 4/11 Lofts are dense development. Neither present a model of affordability.”

    I understand—I might agree—but I there’s a danger of falling into a bit of a logical fallacy:

    “The density proposals that are being pushed address quantity of housing, not affordability.”

    At an extreme this could be taken as an argument that new construction can improve affordability only if it’s the new units themselves that are the most affordable.

    That’s false, as it assumes that the existence of the new units has no effect on the price of other units on the market.

    (And I bet a single new building does not have a significant effect on prices—but taken together the total quantity of housing on the market does obviously is a major factor!)

    So while I’m not particularly interested in high-end lofts, I also don’t see it as reasonable to expect the newest construction to be the most affordable. And I don’t see how refusing any new construction will keep prices down in the long run.

       —Bruce Fields    Aug. 20 '09 - 07:30AM    #
  59. By the way, I have a single, obsessive, somewhat selfish interest in all of this: I just want to be able to do my daily errands on foot.

    Which I can still do, more or less. But the trends haven’t been good: Ann Arbor has been losing grocery stores (and drug stores, and hardware stores), especially those close to downtown. It’s been noticeable even in just the 15 years I’ve lived here.

    I don’t necessarily claim to understand why this is happening, so for now I cling to the one argument I’ve heard that sounds halfway plausible: which is that this kind of retail is economically feasible only given a certain density of downtown residents, hence increased residential density is required to retain those kinds of businesses.

    But maybe that’s all wrong. Honestly, anyone with a convincing solution gets my support. I’m a single-issue voter….

       —Bruce Fields    Aug. 20 '09 - 07:41AM    #
  60. Tearing down existing housing stock and ruining current neighborhoods in a prospective effort to prepare for future growth at a time it is not occurring is what I am objecting to.

    What I’m seeing in this thread is two lines of reasoning against downtown density. One line objects to the destruction of valued older homes. Sometimes I am in full agreement. If City Place gets built just south of the library on Fifth, that would be a major travesty. It should be criminal for demolition equipment to appear on any of those properties. Alternately, I share no such feelings for the homes on N. Main at Summit that would go down for Near North, as they hold less value than the proposed Avalon project.

    The other line of reasoning — the one which prompted my post here last night — argues that increased density is bad because it encourages higher vacancy rates. More vacancies weaken the position of landlords and can soften the value of owner-occupied homes. In a town which over the last generation has become drunk on its out-of-proportion rise in land costs, I couldn’t be more happy to see this sort of thing happen.

    The density proposals that are being pushed address quantity of housing, not affordability.

    Some of the recent downtown condos & apartments look reasonably nice from the outside, but ultimately they don’t feel very welcoming to proles like me. They’re for the people from ‘the other side of the tracks.’ The OWS increasingly feels this way to me, too.

    The city, the county, the state, the feds, Venezuela, or whomever, should take the lead in actively prodding “the market” to provide new ‘work force’ developments, whether apartments, budget condos, co-ops, communes, or small starter homes. This is why the Avalon project on N. Main represents a important step, and why I hope enough of the issues there can be worked out so it can move ahead. If done right, Near North could potentially create a local template for affordable places to come.

    In the immediate downtown area, unlike the more outlying residential neighborhoods, we should not limit ourselves just to infill development. Each downtown-area project should earn consideration on its merits, not rejected out of hand because it’s not on infill.

    As an additional affordability consideration,
    I’ll leave you with these two words from days gone by: Rent Control!

    For example, we should develop the greenway as a means of improving both the livability and the natural environment of the downtown area. Of course, that kind of development doesn’t enrich real estate speculators…

    Creating a better world through chemistry removing downtown structures? This adds fuel to rumors that one motivation for creating a big downtown greenway is to enhance scarcity and bolster property values for OWS residents nearest to downtown.

       —yet another aging boomer    Aug. 20 '09 - 07:50AM    #
  61. Single-use zoning is one of the main culprits of urban sprawl. It ususally requires increased vehicular transportation as opposed to pedestrianism. Eliminate single-use zoning and you will likely curb sprawl tremendously.

       —Mark Koroi    Aug. 20 '09 - 09:31AM    #
  62. Bruce, part of the problem is that retail groceries operate on a very small profit margin so can’t afford to pay rents in expensive areas. We all wanted to see a grocery go in to the vacant space at Liberty Lofts but apparently it doesn’t pencil out. Didn’t the People’s Food Coop look at it?

       —Vivienne Armentrout    Aug. 20 '09 - 02:21PM    #
  63. Bruce, regarding the lack of some retail options downtown (grocery, pharmacy, hardware, etc.). Many retailers evaluate their operation in terms of revenue per square foot.

    If you take that revenue per square foot metric and put it in two different places, one an urban grocer with a high cost per square foot and a second in a strip mall grocer with a low cost per square foot (because of land values), you see that it can be hard for the urban grocer to compete.

    This is why there isn’t a hardware store near American University in DC (at least, why there wasn’t when I was there). You have a low margin business competing with Loews and Home Depot in a high cost-per-square-foot environment. I don’t know how to fix this problem.

    Vivienne’s commented that for those who who think higher density will lead to more affordability, “the realities of the market seem to escape them,” someone please explain to me why this isn’t an econ 101 supply and demand thing. Supply increases, demand stays the same, cost decreases. There are limits to the degree to which this is a good thing, so I’m not arguing for unfettered supply increases, but I don’t see why supply increases would not lead to cost decreases.

       —Chuck Warpehoski    Aug. 21 '09 - 05:26AM    #
  64. “This is why there isn’t a hardware store near American University in DC (at least, why there wasn’t when I was there).”

    Looks like this is about a mile away?

    I understand the challenge. We can throw up our hands and say it’s hopeless (though there are cities that manage this, to some degree). Or we can try to find some way to make it profitable to sell that kind of thing downtown.

    In which case the choices are to lower their rents or raise their revenues. The “allow more residential density nearby” approach attempts the latter.

       —Bruce Fields    Aug. 21 '09 - 07:51AM    #
  65. Adding high-end housing units does not result in greater affordable housing, according to studies I saw in grad school.

    These housing studies looked at the “chain of moves” which resulted when a new housing unit is occupied. Family A moves into the new unit, Family B moves into Family A’s old place, Family C moves into Family B’s old place, and so on.

    You might think that the chain of moves might move all the way down the socio-economic scale so that a house at the bottom end becomes vacant. But it doesn’t work that way. Rather, the chain of moves is short — no more than five moves — and ends with a household formation within the upper middle class tier.

    I suppose in the fullness of time, addition of new units affects the overall supply and demand and arguably keeps rents and house prices down. But anyone who has watched real estate values very long knows that they fluctuate hugely up and down, even when the supply is constant. Modest additions to the supply (all that is ever really possible) have a slight impact compared to other factors.

    A general decline in the value of a whole class of housing in an area is associated with a lot of negative phenomena: physical deterioration, racism, stigmatization, crime, decline in public services, conversion to rental, demolition and replacement by non-housing land uses.

    In sum, the most efficient way to create affordable housing is to explicitly build affordable units.

       —Larry Kestenbaum    Aug. 21 '09 - 10:08AM    #
  66. [removed]
       —Council Video    Aug. 22 '09 - 05:54PM    #