Know Your Kirk: Public Servant

Kirk Westphal serves on planning, environmental commissions

About six years ago, Kirk Westphal was living in New York City with his wife, Cynthia. So it’s a fair question to ask: “How did you get here?” Sitting in one of the cozy lounge chairs in the the Espresso Royale on Main Street, Wesphal talked about how he gets to places like the café, how he came to his current line of work, and how he made his serendipitous move to Ann Arbor.

Kirk Westphal seems to recognize the guy on his video-editing screen. (Chronicle file photo, June 2010.)

“[My wife and I] were on a run in Central Park one night and we thought, we love New York but we’d be open to going someplace else,” Westphal recalls. When asked by his wife where he would want to move, Westphal’s automatic response was one that surprised her: Ann Arbor. “Her jaw went to the floor, ‘cause she didn’t think I knew anything about Michigan,” Westphal says, “which I didn’t.” The next day, Westphal’s wife searched online for jobs at the University of Michigan, and found an open faculty position at the School of Music. “One thing lead to another and she got that job,” Westphal says. “It was a message.”

Though Westphal may be a recent “import from New York,” he has already accumulated a range of community service experience in his six years here in Ann Arbor. Westphal serves as vice chair of the city’s planning commission, having been a member for four years, and also holds a spot on the environmental commission. He’s also serving on the design guidelines task force that is working on the final piece of the recent rezoning of downtown, known as A2D2.

While talking with The Chronicle, Westphal jokingly asked that the headline not reflect just one of his commitments to public service for fear that one commission or the other might be offended. He was alluding to the typical “Know Your” pattern for headlines The Chronicle uses for profiles of public servants: “Know Your AATA Board,” “Know Your DDA Board” or “Know Your Library Board.”

Westphal began his public service while earning his master’s in urban planning at UM. “I got to know the mayor,” he explains, “because I took his class in public policy school … I had also asked him about keeping me aware of any opportunities to volunteer.” [Mayor John Hieftje teaches a course as a lecturer at the UM Ford School of Public Policy: "Local Government, Opportunity for Activism."]

Westphal got his start in Ann Arbor community service on the city’s Housing Policy Board, to which he was appointed in March 2006. He served on that board just a few months, until September 2006. “And then,” he says, “when an opening came up on the planning commission, I applied for that and got appointed.”

With his interest in urban planning, Westphal’s participation on the planning commission proved a good fit. His appointment to the city’s environmental commission is rooted in that body’s practical need to have a representative from the city’s planning commission. “The environmental commission’s by-laws require a liaison to the planning commission, so I volunteered for that.”

But beyond filling that administrative need, Westphal continues, “There is such a huge environmental implication to land use and I felt like I could be useful in helping to bring in that perspective to environmental issues.” Emphasizing the connection between the two commissions, Westphal notes, “Any time there is a rezoning of something, it has an environmental impact, whether it’s stated or not. Every planning decision has far-reaching environmental consequences.”

My other car is a bus

Kirk Westphal's bag with button: "My other car is the bus." (Chronicle file photo, June 2010.)

The expected eco-friendly lifestyle of an environmental commissioner is one that Westphal exemplifies. “I actually just recently took advantage of something I found out about from the last email I got from the city, where the state and DTE are subsidizing energy audits and also offering incentives to complete the recommendations of those audits.  I’m happy to say that we got it recently and it was a fantastic analysis.” Later in the interview, he noted with pride about his family of four: “We are a one-car family. It’s biking and busing distance for both my wife and I.”

Like his move to Ann Arbor, Westphal notes, “My career path sort of happened accidentally.” While in New York, Westphal worked doing traditional market research, often purely quantitatively focused, usually for advertising agencies. As an undergrad, Westphal studied economics at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.  Soon, however, “I started to be the person that they would send out to the street, with a videographer and a microphone to ask people questions about what beer they drank, where they shop for pantyhose,” Westphal adds, “You name it, I researched it.”

“That always got so much more attention, rightly or wrongly, than the $10,000 quantitative research report we hired someone to do,” Westphal says. Realizing the effect such videos had on people, Westphal’s interest in filmmaking grew. For his thesis in graduate school, Westphal began independently making videos on urban issues. He considers his first video and thesis film, “Insights into a Lively Downtown,” to be his most memorable. “The basis of the video was my going out and first asking people, pedestrians around Ann Arbor, what they consider to be the heart of the city, and they could define that any way they wanted.”

On YouTube, the 20-minute video has received over 26,000 views since it was posted in early 2007, and is currently one of the first search results returned on YouTube for “urban planning.”

“It helped reinforce the message to me,” Westphal says, “that it’s great to recommend books to read about urban issues, but you can really reach a whole new segment and more casual observers just by doing a video. I don’t know what that says about our culture, but it did generate a lot of interest.”

After earning his master’s in urban planning in 2006, Westphal opened Westphal Associates on South Main Street.  While Westphal is the only full-time employee of the company, he often hires videographers to help with particular projects. Westphal focuses on a small number of projects per year, though they tend to be larger assignments, he says.

One of Westphal’s upcoming films is an educational video on the council-manager form of government. His client in that case was the Michigan Local Government Management Association. He’s previously done video work for MLGMA on the awareness of the council-manager form of government. At time stamp [4:19], this video [link to YouTube] features Westphal asking several different people on the street the same question: “Have you ever heard of the council-manager form of government?” Hilarity ensues.

And recently, Westphal received a grant from the Urban Design and Preservation division of the American Planning Association to film “a more broad interpretation of my first film … on how to make downtown streets more attractive, more viable.” The project, called “The Great Street Toolkit,” will soon be available on DVD, though most of his videos are posted on his YouTube account [KirkWestphal] as well.

But upcoming work on Ann Arbor’s city planning commission will also focus on areas of the city outside the downtown. “There’s a new R4C/R2A  study committee,” Westphal explains. He hopes that the study committee will provide an opportunity for the planning commission “to talk about people’s visions for those neighborhoods and how they’re changing and what people would like to see.”

[From the city's zoning code on R4C: "... intended to permit dwelling units to be arranged one above the other or side by side ... to be located in the central area of the City, in close proximity to the central business district and The University of Michigan Campus." From the city's zoning code on R2A: "This district is intended to provide residential areas in the City which are suitable for 2 single-family attached dwellings occupying 1 lot."]

While Westphal’s commitment to the planning commission remains strong, he says, “I think if I volunteer for anything else, there might be some issues at home. The babysitting budget has already been blown on night meetings for these commissions.”

Hayley Byrnes is an intern with The Ann Arbor Chronicle.


  1. August 31, 2010 at 8:27 am | permalink

    New York’s loss is Ann Arbor’s gain. We are lucky to have Kirk and his family.


  2. By Leah Gunn
    August 31, 2010 at 2:54 pm | permalink

    Thank you for the chance to see Kirk’s film on a lovely and less hectic than usual end-of-summer afternoon. He has a real insight into what makes Ann Arbor’s downtown so special. For someone who remembers when it was not all that great, it was a pleasure to see this video.

  3. By Shirley Zempel
    September 1, 2010 at 10:41 pm | permalink

    Interesting and entertaining. This is primarily aimed at visitors or those living on the edges of town. Kirk did not talk to those who live in the near downtown. I live on the edge of downtown. While I do enjoy walking to many of the stores in town, I am stymied when in search of mundane items. There are many artsy boutiques and restaurants, but not a department store with the ordinary items most persons need, or a full service grocery or a drugstore inside the city limits, and as long as you don’t mind dodging the waiters taking care of the customers who enjoy the fumes on Main Street while dining. Whoops, we are finally going to get a CVS on state Street (I think), a long time coming and possibly much more time. At least, it will probably be before we get our long promised “greenbelt”. Living in the city requires perseverance!

  4. By Rod Johnson
    September 2, 2010 at 8:42 am | permalink

    ACME Mercantile has some of those things downtown people need (lightbulbs, needles, stuff like that)–that was its original raison d’etre, though I think it’s hipster knicknacks that pay the bills.

    As for drugstores within the city limits–you must be kidding. I can think of a dozen.