Chris Leinberger was blunt in his assessment of the proposed Fuller Road Station: If the parking structure is built as proposed, in 20 years it will be torn down.
Speaking at a forum on transit-oriented development, Leinberger – a University of Michigan professor of practice in urban planning – said current plans for the joint UM/city of Ann Arbor project do a good job of incorporating different kinds of transit, from bikes and buses to perhaps, eventually, commuter rail.
But Leinberger criticized the project for taking some of Ann Arbor’s most valuable land and turning it into something that won’t generate revenue for the city. He told Eli Cooper, the city’s transportation program manager, that “whoever’s in your position 20 years from now will tear it down.”
Monday’s forum, held at the UM Art & Architecture building on north campus, was organized by members of the WALLY Coalition and the 208 Group, among others, to focus on local transit-oriented development efforts. Moderated by local developer Peter Allen, the event included presentations by Cooper, Richard Murphy of the city of Ypsilanti and Shea Charles, Howell’s city manager.
Walkable Urban vs. Drivable Sub-Urban
Chris Leinberger began his presentation by noting that Doug Kelbaugh, former dean of UM’s College of Architecture and Urban Planning, had written a book with Peter Calthorpe – “The Pedestrian Pocket Book” – in which they coined the term transit-oriented development. “So in a sense,” Leinberger said, “it started here.” [The name Calthorpe is familiar to Ann Arbor residents for another reason – the city hired Calthorpe's firm to help develop a zoning and land use strategy. The result of that work was the Calthorpe Report.]
Transportation drives development, Leinberger said. To illustrate, he outlined a post-World War II shift in America from walkable urban environments to drivable “sub-urban” settings in what he characterized as the country’s largest social engineering project. The shift was facilitated by 1) zoning laws that made walkable urban designs illegal, 2) massive subsidies for roads, and 3) finance and real estate industries that are far more comfortable with suburban development. Race played a factor, too, in pushing development out of the cities.
But the pendulum is swinging back to favor walkable urban design, Leinberger contends. Several factors are at play, including a downturn in the market that’s structural, not cyclical, he said. The suburbs are overbuilt, and demographics are changing. In the 1950s, 50% of households had children – today, only 33% do, and in the next few decades that percentage will drop even more. “The demographics are telling us something,” he said.
Other factors have more to do with attitude. “Boredom is a much underrated motivation for social change,” Leinberger said, adding that people are recognizing how strip malls degrade quality of life.
Also at play: the expense of maintaining a household fleet of vehicles is no longer sustainable, Leinberger said. And a third of Americans don’t drive, either because they’re too young, too old, disabled or disinclined. “I think the days of 15 million in car sales per year are long gone,” he said.
All of this contributes to a structural change taking place in development. And high demand for walkable urban settings puts a price premium in areas like Ann Arbor, he said.
Rail transit plays an important role in making walkable urban design feasible. But paying for it is an issue, especially in an age of declining federal resources. Leinberger said we can learn from the past – 100 years ago, 80% of all rail transit was built by real estate developers, with the rest paid for by power companies.
Leinberger laid out a range of funding options for transit projects, from tax-increment financing to private special assessment districts. He believes the availability of federal funds will decrease, because “we just don’t have the money.” That’s one reason why it’s important to encourage private investment, and to change the requirements that constrain the ability to leverage private dollars for public transit. He cited a nearby example: The proposed Woodward Avenue line in downtown Detroit has backing from private investors, which the federal government initially wasn’t going to include as a match for federal funding.
What’s Happening Locally: WALLY, East-West Rail
There are two local commuter rail efforts: the Washtenaw and Livingston Line, known as WALLY, and an east-west commuter rail between Ann Arbor and Detroit. Representatives from three municipalities connected with those efforts spoke at Monday’s forum.
Shea Charles, Howell city manager, gave an overview of his city’s work as it relates to the rail project. Howell would be a terminus for WALLY, which also would include stops in Genoa Township, Hamburg and Whitmore Lake, ultimately ending in Ann Arbor. He noted that the railroad’s owners hope eventually to extend the northern route to Traverse City, and possibly go as far south as Toledo.
Charles described Howell as a classic downtown urban area, with a train depot about 2.5 blocks away from the city’s main intersection of Michigan and Grand River avenues. He said potential development around the depot could include a six-level parking deck, and noted that a portion of the site is a brownfield.
Leinberger was asked to comment on Howell’s plans, as was Susan Zielinski, managing director of UM’s SMART (Sustainable Mobility and Accessibility Research and Transformation) program. Leinberger said if the city was going to have to pay for the commuter line, they’d need to shoot for much higher density to generate more tax revenues. Tax-increment financing was viable, he said. But the problem is that site improvements like housing or retail, which create the additional tax revenue captured by TIF, also create a demand for public services, like police and fire. And if you’re using 20 years worth of TIF revenues to develop the site, other parts of the city will end up subsidizing those public services.
In her response to Howell’s plans, Zielinski characterized the node as one of a string of pearls. She urged the audience to think about how the train connects to other parts of the community, as well as how the stations in different cities connect to each other. She also noted that the goal of transit is accessibility, not mobility for mobility’s sake.
Technology will be able to play a role in making these connections, she said. Imagine using your iPhone to reserve a Zipcar at the next stop, for example, or interconnecting the fares for different systems to make payments easier for commuters.
Next up was Eli Cooper, transportation program manager for the city of Ann Arbor, who gave an abbreviated version of presentation he’d made at a Feb. 10 public forum. He described Fuller Road Station as an intermodal “mecca,” with the ultimate goal of creating a hub for commuters into Ann Arbor near one of the city’s major employers, the University of Michigan Health System.
Peter Allen noted that in terms of development, the Broadway Village at Lowertown – a mixed-use project that he described as being “trapped by the economic downturn” – was only four blocks from the proposed transit station.
Leinberger said the Fuller Road site was “golden” in terms of future development, given its proximity to the Huron River and the premium put on land in that area. He suggested building an underground structure, if possible. Another idea – one he said would likely get Cooper “hung” – was to narrow Fuller Road, making it more walkable.
But fundamentally, a parking structure will under-utilize the land, Leinberger said, and drive out every other type of development. It won’t generate revenues on the site, he said, and in 20 years will be torn down to accommodate something more appropriate – “because the land will be too valuable.”
In her critique, Zielinski said she liked the variety of transit options planned for the site, but thought it should be more of a mixed-use development.
Cooper noted that the site is designated as city parkland, which puts some constraints on development. But he also argued that the project is important because it would support one of the mainstays of the regional and state economy – the University of Michigan. He said that one of the suggestions from the city’s park advisory commission was to find a way to bring more active uses to the site. He said the structure will be built to be strong enough to support additional levels of housing on it in the future, but that finances will drive those decisions. Fundamentally, though, the project must be done in phases. “Crawl before you walk,” he said. “Walk before you run.”
The third city project was presented by Richard Murphy, an Ypsilanti city planner who recently accepted a job at the Michigan Suburbs Alliance – a nonprofit led by Conan Smith, who’s also a Washtenaw County commissioner. Ypsilanti’s train depot is in the Depot Town district, located between two parks – Riverside to the south and Frog Island to the north – which draw thousands of people to various festivals each year. The Eastern Michigan University campus to the northwest is another major player, Murphy said, with about 22,000 students and a fast-growing enrollment.
The freighthouse at the train depot is being rehabbed, Murphy said, and there are about 18 acres of a mostly abandoned industrial facility along the river to the north of Depot Town, which could be developed. But “downzoning” has been a trend in the city, he said, shifting toward single-family residential and away from higher-density zoning. Within a quarter-mile radius of the train depot, roughly a third of the land is zoned for single-family homes. There’s also resistance from Depot Town business owners to the commuter rail project, he said, adding that the political consensus for transit-oriented development isn’t there yet.
Murphy also noted that the city might have a “TIF allergy” – they used that strategy to finance redevelopment of the Water Street area along Michigan Avenue, but the land still stands vacant. The city is counting on TIF revenues to help pay $31 million in bonds over a 20-year period.
In responding to the project, Leinberger said that NIMBY opposition can be a critical hurdle to overcome for any type of high-density development. Giving examples from the Washington D.C. area, he said people were finally figuring out that a more walkable, urban environment yields a better quality of life – and accounts for a higher price premium on housing in those kinds of areas.
Leinberger also cautioned that if this region doesn’t invest in the commuter rail, “you’re going to be toast.” To prevent being stuck in a 20th-century economy, he said, rail is key to economic survival.
Wrapping up the presentations was Dick Carlisle of the Ann Arbor planning firm Carlisle/Wortman Associates. Carlisle cited political fragmentation as the single most important obstacle in achieving transit-oriented development. This region has the resources, he said, but not the common vision.
There are over 50 units of government in Washtenaw and Livingston counties, Carlisle noted, and the regional economy will only prosper through collaboration. That effort must include leadership from the universities as well. He proposed forming a Green Growth Alliance, with WALLY as its transit spine, to develop a green and technology-based regional economy via a partnership of the public, private and institutional sectors.