Ann Arbor Pursues Sustainability Grant

Effort seeks up to $100,000 from Home Depot Foundation

In early September, the city of Ann Arbor was one of four finalists for a $1 million, three-year sustainability project funded by the Home Depot Foundation. Ann Arbor didn’t make the final cut – Charleston, South Carolina and Fayetteville, Arkansas were selected – but city staff are now pursuing a grant of up to $100,000 from Home Depot that could fund a shorter-term initiative, building on existing sustainability efforts.

The grant was discussed at a working session of the Ann Arbor planning commission earlier this month. Matt Naud – the city’s environmental coordinator – told The Chronicle that the city will likely file the grant application in early December.

Ann Arbor’s Current Sustainability Efforts

The topic of sustainability has emerged in public discussions more frequently over the past year or so, and both city staff and appointed members to some of the city’s commissions have begun to focus on the issue. The city’s environmental commission has a “sustainable community” committee, formed in 2008, which has discussed ways to expand the city’s goals to include social equity and economic vitality, in addition to environmental considerations. Steve Bean, Anya Dale and Kirk Westphal serve on that committee, with staff support from Naud.

More broadly, an April 2010 joint working session of the city’s planning, environmental and energy commissions was convened to discuss ways that the city could work toward building a more sustainable future. From Chronicle coverage of that meeting:

The discussion touched on the conceptual as well as the concrete, with some commissioners urging the group to tackle practical considerations as well. The chairs of each commission – [planning commission chair Bonnie] Bona, the energy commission’s Wayne Appleyard, and Steve Bean of the environmental commission – set the stage by talking about the roles of their appointed public bodies, and how sustainability might be incorporated into their work.

Specific ideas discussed during the session included financing energy improvements in households through a special self-assessment on property tax bills, and tapping expertise at the University of Michigan.

More than midway through the meeting they were joined by Terry Alexander, executive director of UM’s Office of Campus Sustainability. He described UM’s efforts at implementing sustainable practices on campus as well as creating a living/learning environment for students, teaching them what it means to be a “green citizen.”

Toward the end of the meeting, Bona noted that the issue extended far beyond the three commissions gathered around the table. Housing, parks and other areas need to be involved as well, she said, if they were truly to tackle the three elements of sustainability: environmental quality, social equity, and economic vitality.

The topic of sustainability also had been part of the discussion at a March 2010 retreat of the planning commission. One of the aspects of that discussion included the need to define what sustainability means. From Chronicle coverage of the March retreat:

Jean Carlberg asked Bonnie Bona what she meant by sustainability, which Bona had brought up in the brainstorming session. Bona replied that it was something the community needed to decide: “That’s the first question – what is it?”

She added that sustainability is an all-or-nothing concept – something is either sustainable, or it isn’t. Bona also identified three elements of sustainability: environmental quality, social equity, and economic vitality. “I don’t think we look at any one of them as a planning commission,” she said. …

Kirk Westphal said that tangentially, the commission does deal with those elements of sustainability. He also stressed the importance of looking at a “sustainability watershed” – that is, a broader geographic area within which a community is sustainable. For example, adding another resident to the city increases its carbon footprint, he said, but “do we take one for the team?” Westphal also noted that even the worst non-LEED building in the city is better than the greenest structure five miles outside of town, if you have to drive there.

The concept of sustainability also touched on fiscal impacts of development. Westphal noted that when he talked about “the city’s money” earlier in the discussion, Pratt had remarked that it’s everyone’s money. Pratt is right, Westphal said – it’s taxpayers’ money. But the positive aspects of adding to the tax base through development are rarely mentioned. People talk about “greedy developers,” but they don’t look at how the taxes generated from a development go toward plowing the streets, for example.

Pratt noted that as the tax base shrinks, the current levels of service are no longer sustainable – unless people are willing to pay more for the same services.

Later during the March retreat, Wendy Rampson – head of the city’s planning staff – asked whether the commission wanted to make sustainability a staff priority. Commissioners indicated that while it was worth having more discussion about it, other issues took higher priority at that point.

The Home Depot Foundation Grant

At the planning commission’s Nov. 9 working session, Matt Naud told commissioners that while sustainability is an aspect of several city efforts – including its State of Our Environment goals and indicators, the Huron River and Impoundment Management Plan, and the Parks and Recreation Open Space Plan – there isn’t a specific sustainability plan that brings all of these elements together.

Naud said the Home Depot Foundation has up to $100,000 available for developing a sustainability plan, one that would incorporate the city’s existing efforts into a more cohesive approach. The city’s proposal would likely entail hiring someone to take on the project for a year, he said. One aspect might be to do a gap analysis – what are the city’s current sustainability goals, and what needs to be done to reach them? He asked commissioners for their feedback about what elements to include in making the grant application.

Home Depot Grant: Commissioner Discussion

Jean Carlberg noted that cost always seems to be absent from discussions of sustainability. Almost all sustainability efforts are costly – and for the individual homeowner, she said, it’s generally too expensive. Bonnie Bona responded to that observation, saying that to take a house to “net zero” – a term indicating that the house uses only energy generated on-site – could be a 40-year process, with expenses spread out over that period. Naud noted that costs to achieve net-zero status are coming down. Just 10 years ago, it would have cost significantly more than today.

It would be more affordable using tools like the Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program, Bona said, or if homeowners set aside money they see from energy savings to make additional energy-related modifications.

In a PACE program, the city could use municipal bonds to fund the upfront installation of a solar system to a resident’s home, for example. The resident would then pay the city through self-assessed property taxes, probably over 15 to 20 years. Enabling legislation for PACE sponsored by state Rep. Rebekah Warren of Ann Arbor passed the House earlier this year, but a Senate version scaled back the program to cover only commercial properties. That bill passed the state Senate in September, but hasn’t yet been acted on by the House.

During the Nov. 9 working session, Eric Mahler, chair of the planning commission, suggested that they needed to come up with a working definition of sustainability. The best one he’d heard, he said, described sustainability as meeting the community’s current needs without impacting the needs of future generations.

Bona referred to the discussion at the April joint working session, and said she walked away from that meeting with the sense that people were interested in setting targets and measuring outcomes related to sustainability. Naud said they didn’t want to propose a pie-in-the-sky project, but rather they could assess where the city stands now, envision where they want to be, and identify specific goals to get there.

Naud said that in the past there had been discussion of setting broad sustainability goals, but there’d been some pushback to that. Instead, the environmental commission and staff developed a set of environmental goals that were easier to measure, he said. With this Home Depot Foundation grant, there’s the possibility of developing a framework for the city’s sustainability efforts, Naud said. That would allow the city to pick three or four specific goals to work toward, then build funding for those efforts into the city’s two-year budget cycle, he said.

Rampson gave the example of looking at land use through a framework of sustainability, which might include issues of transportation access, or the balance of housing in relation to employment centers. That kind of framework could be used when looking at development along one of the city’s main corridors, like Washtenaw Avenue or South State Street.

Saying that the prospect of getting grant funding for this initiative sounded great, Mahler wondered whether the project would have the support of city council. Carlberg pointed out that councilmembers were unlikely to turn down money. Rampson noted that some city councilmembers – including mayor John Hieftje, Margie Teall (Ward 4) and Tony Derezinski (Ward 2) – had been involved in the round of interviews that Home Depot executives had conducted this summer for the $1 million sustainability project.

Commissioners suggested pulling in other groups – Bona noted that at the April working session, Hieftje had expressed the importance of working with neighboring communities in whatever sustainability initiative the city might take on. She also said they had discussed working with the city’s park advisory commission and housing commission, in addition to the planning, energy and environmental commissions. Carlberg added that UM should be involved too.

In making their current proposal, Rampson said, they need to identify a project that the Home Depot Foundation could use as a case study. It needs to be something the city can do within the grant budget and timeframe, she said. A project that seems achievable is looking at all the city’s master plans, finding the elements of sustainability that already exist, and developing that into a usable framework. After that, it would make sense to pull in UM and other groups, Rampson said, like the Washtenaw Urban County. The Urban County is a consortium of local governments – including Ann Arbor – that receives federal funding for low-income neighborhoods, and could help address the social equity aspect of sustainability, she said.

Home Depot Grant: Next Steps

In a phone interview last week with The Chronicle, Naud said that city staff are still finalizing the application. He’s working with Rampson and Connie Pulcipher of the city’s systems planning unit, and they’ll be talking with representatives from the Home Depot Foundation on Dec. 9 to present a draft of their proposal. The city is already involved to some degree in the foundation’s sustainability efforts – Ann Arbor is among the cities profiled on the Sustainable Cities Initiative website, funded by the Home Depot Foundation.

Part of the grant proposal could include figuring out how to engage the community, Naud said, likely by developing a website to educate people about what’s already happening, to solicit ideas and to give people a voice who might not have the time or inclination to attend public meetings.

Naud, Rampson and Pulcipher will also be working with the city’s environmental commission in shaping the sustainability project, Naud said – he noted that it’s the only city commission in which the city code specifies sustainability as part of its mission. Under the section of city code that establishes the commission, among its powers and duties are:

(g) To advise the City Council and City Administrator on all matters related to sustainable development, clean production, and environmental technologies.

Meanwhile, there hasn’t been additional action taken as a result of the three-commission sustainability working session in April. In a recent email to The Chronicle, Steve Bean – chair of the environmental commission – said the next step could include drafting sustainability goals and getting feedback from members of all three commissions and those goals, and about how to proceed. That could happen sometime early next year.


  1. November 29, 2010 at 9:15 am | permalink

    “Rampson gave the example of looking at land use through a framework of sustainability, which might include issues of transportation access, or the balance of housing in relation to employment centers. That kind of framework could be used when looking at development along one of the city’s main corridors, like Washtenaw Avenue or South State Street.”

    In other words, the city might accept grant money to drive the idea of Transportation-Oriented Development (TOD). This has been an underlying theme of many recent planning initiatives and is not one that has been adequately considered by our current populace. It would involved overriding current zoning and plans to create extremely high density along certain transportation corridors. It creates a profitable venue for development. Does it actually improve our quality of life as a community? That needs to be discussed. (The Area, Height and Placement changes recently approved move somewhat in this direction.)

    One of the things that make me queasy about this whole move is that often recently “sustainability” has been equated with (building or population) density. This leads to some weird claims, such as Valiant’s that its hotel and conference center enhances our environment because it is “density”.

    We need to guard against the label of sustainability being used as “green” has been – to justify whatever policy that the ruling coalition wishes to put into place. Merely calling something “sustainable” should not be adequate to make major changes without a community discussion. I’ve seen some members of council refer to downtown development as being “sustainable”, meaning more density, though it is not justified in broader terms as to how it meets any set of “sustainable” or community-enhancing criteria such as energy or water conservation.

    There are tons of books and references out there about sustainability. Let’s have an “Ann Arbor Reads” about it before we launch a putative sustainability initiative.

  2. By Stephen Landes
    November 29, 2010 at 3:05 pm | permalink

    I am not surprised that Ann Arbor didn’t make the cut for the sustainability grant and reading this article confirmed for me the reason: no one in this article seems to have any idea what sustainability is all about. Sustainability is not an “initiative” we take on one aspect of life like a watershed or electricity. “Sustainability” is a way of living in all aspects of, in this case, city administration where we achieve a balance among all the factors involved in each decision. Commonly those factors are described as environment/society/finance. This is not about making something sustainable, but about making decisions that strike a balance among these factors to the best of our ability given present circumstances. If we are looking for some “sustainability project” to focus on then we are totally missing the boat.

    I submit that continuing to allow our city retirement funds to remain unfunded is simply unsustainable, not good for our finances or society. Talking about art projects when we can’t repair our roads is unsustainable. Nothing is less sustainable than converting our parkland into strip malls and parking lots — how does that support the environment leg of sustainability? We cannot become a “sustainable” community by patching things over with special projects when at the core we are crumbling.

  3. November 29, 2010 at 5:02 pm | permalink

    Excellent points (#2).

    I should have said “Transit-oriented development”.

  4. By LiberalNIMBY
    November 29, 2010 at 10:12 pm | permalink

    I find it interesting that in back-to-back posts there are complaints about both our suffering finances AND expanding our tax base allowing more development on empty parking lots near transit. Classic!

    Also, if we’re intimating that a golf course is “green,” by gum, we do need a reading group.

  5. By Alice Ralph
    November 30, 2010 at 11:04 am | permalink

    The following excerpt contrasts with the importance of making sustainability a community effort based on public conversation–”Rampson noted that some city councilmembers – including mayor John Hieftje, Margie Teall (Ward 4) and Tony Derezinski (Ward 2) – had been involved in the round of interviews that Home Depot executives had conducted this summer for the $1 million sustainability project.” Who knew?
    If grant funds could be used, as Naud suggests, for public engagement (real and robust), we might at least find the starting line. We are pretty far behind, despite talk of the important integrtaed triumvirate of environmental quality, social equity and economic vitality.

  6. By Jack Eaton
    November 30, 2010 at 12:49 pm | permalink

    Vivienne, the Area Height and Placement (AHP) amendments have not yet been approved by Council. It is on their agenda for Monday December 6. A last minute amendment to the AHP proposal would remove all height restrictions for certain zoning districts, provided the building site is not adjacent to a single family zoning district.

    The AHP proposal seems particularly ill-conceived from a sustainability point of view. It encourages demolition and replacement of existing structures to achieve “transit friendly” developments. Demolition and replacement creates a huge carbon footprint. We need policies that encourage restoration and retro-fitting. Reduce, reuse, recycle.

    LiberalNimby, new construction does not guarantee additional tax revenue. If we add to our already substantial surplus of housing and commercial real estate, it will drive property values and property tax revenues down. Moreover, the large, multi-use developments that the City seeks to encourage with the AHP proposal usually come with exotic TIF schemes that drain off any new property tax revenue. The AHP changes will provide short term benefits to developers, but will not benefit the community.

  7. November 30, 2010 at 5:33 pm | permalink

    Jack, I’m all for finding creative re-uses of existing structures, but the AHP proposal will probably be one of the most important sustainability statutes Council has passed in decades.

    Demolition is entirely possible under existing zoning. Unfortunately, new structures that support sustainable living are not. Our 1950s-era zoning regulations require giant parking lots and huge crabgrass monocultures (due to building setbacks, etc.). That’s not sustainable. The regulations also ensured that if the number of jobs in Ann Arbor increases – as it has over the past several decades – increasing numbers of people won’t be able to find housing in town, since little new housing can be built. Instead, they’re forced to drive from Chelsea, Saline or Pittsfield, and park at new, expensive parking garages. That’s neither sustainable nor fair.

    Unless we have a command-and-control economy, we aren’t faced with a choice between growth and no growth. We can only decide whether growth happens in existing cities, or whether it gets pushed onto surrounding farmland. New construction will generate carbon emissions – there’s no question of that. But there’s also no question that new infill development is far more sustainable than sprawl.

    I’ve lived in Ann Arbor most of my life, and I believe 100% that the AHP changes will benefit the community (and the planet). In fact, if I could risk just a little hyperbole, I think that over the long term I think they may benefit us more than just about anything else that’s come before Council in recent memory.

  8. November 30, 2010 at 7:10 pm | permalink

    Actually, I like infill, when it is in scale to the surrounding neighborhood/context and well done. (I’m happy about the new construction on Summit, for example.) But a couple of things leaped out at me about Joel’s comment: first, Ann Arbor’s population is not increasing, and second, a recent article in the Michigan Daily [link] had the interesting statement that Ann Arbor has too many housing units.

    Are the people in Chelsea, Saline and Pittsfield willing to move to apartments, condos or other dense housing, or will they hang on to the favorite ideal of a big backyard? Hard to say.

    Now if anyone wants to take up the sea of concrete at Maple Village with interesting new developments, you will receive my blessings.

    Great that we still have a chance to weigh in on AHP. It has been going on for a while now.

  9. By Jack Eaton
    December 1, 2010 at 11:09 am | permalink

    Joel, you said: “Our 1950s-era zoning regulations require giant parking lots and huge crabgrass monocultures (due to building setbacks, etc.). That’s not sustainable.”

    Am I to understand that you believe that sustainable building requires us to abandon our practice of providing large parking lots? The idea that if we do not provide parking, customers will find other means of transportation to our retail sites seems inherent to the density goal. The Whole Foods on Washtenaw was built without sufficient parking and there is no evidence that its customers have resorted to other means of transportation.

    Similarly, the mixed use development at Green and Plymouth was designed with reduced parking as an integral aspect of its design. The developer returned to the Planning Commission late last year and sought permission to replace a planed restaurant with more parking – in part because of a lack of financing for the restaurant and in part because he was losing potential retail tenants because there was not enough parking.

    We can pretend that failing to provide adequate parking will result in more walking, biking and mass transit use. Unfortunately, it will just encourage developers to place retail outlets outside of town, like Costco did. What if we plan a city based on an assumption that car use will decline dramatically but instead find that alternate fuel and hyper-efficient vehicles allow individuals to continue using cars? Will it be sustainable to go back and try to supply sufficient parking?

    There may be types of development that are more sustainable than big box stores. Nonetheless, there are companies like Best Buy, CVS and Target that will insist on single story, big box stores, so long as that is a possibility. No zoning requirement will change that. If we don’t allow that kind of development in the city, it will be built in the surrounding townships — so much for avoiding sprawl.

    Places that are densely populated enough to provide walkable communities — like Chicago or New York — are that way because of the surrounding sprawl. The lack of area to spread into causes the central density. Clearly, the density in those cities did not prevent sprawl. Unless surrounding communities, like Scio, Whitmore Lake and Saline, give up their desire to grow, no zoning changes in Ann Arbor will stop, or even slow, sprawl. There is a limited demographic who will choose a $300,000, two-bedroom condo in a tower at Huron and Ashley over a $300,000 3-bedroom home with a yard and attached garage locally or in a nearby community.

    With the loss of population in Michigan, including Ann Arbor, we should not be planning for growth. The loss of population will mean high vacancy rates that will make newly constructed high-density homes less affordable than existing homes. We need to stop planning for population growth and start planning for an improved quality of our community.

    The idea that projected job growth in Ann Arbor is reason to push high density development is equally flawed. We have yet to replace the Pfizer jobs the city lost. We have considerable housing stock that is vacant and available. There is little reason to believe that those hired into the mythic new jobs will be able to afford the high prices of new development.

    The AHP proposal does not address any problem we currently experience. It also does not address our environmental concerns. The carbon footprint from demolition undermines any walkability/LEEDS gains. The development of expensive new high-rises does not offer a real alternative to suburban life.

  10. December 2, 2010 at 2:37 pm | permalink

    Vivienne: Glad to find common ground on appropriate infill. However, I think that the lack of population growth in Ann Arbor since 1980 is a direct result of past barriers to infill. Relatively little build-able land remained in the city after the 1980s, so once the freeway ring got filled in by subdivisions, restrictive zoning prevented new housing in town.

    Washtenaw County population, by contrast, has increased by 100,000 in the past thirty years. I don’t think 100% of those people would choose apartments or smaller, older homes over larger, more spacious suburban lots, but I do think a lot of them would have. Unfortunately, we haven’t given them much of a choice. Maybe something at Maple Village could be a step towards that goal.

    I interpret the Daily article differently, too: “McClary said the demand for student housing has motivated developers to build more high rises and condominiums in the city.” There may be a surplus right now, as students take advantage of new apartments to abandon dilapidated “student ghetto” rentals, but over time, I expect that more of the latter will be rehabilitated by enterprising remodelers or preservationists (although they’ll have to tear out a lot of walls), enabling them to draw back the families who’ve been pushed out of town.

    Jack, I entirely agree that merely limiting parking isn’t an effective sustainability strategy. In concert with better transit, pedestrian, and bicycle systems, however, I think it works quite well. To be sure, our practices haven’t yet caught up to our rhetoric on that front, as suggested by the publicly-sponsored parking garages under construction and discussion.

    As a history major in undergrad, I’ve got to challenge your argument that walkable communities “are that way because of the surrounding sprawl.” That just isn’t true. Downtown Ann Arbor is walkable because the car didn’t exist when it first got built, and neither did the car-centric 1950s zoning regulations that prohibited anything like it from being built again. NYC, Chicago, and downtown Ann Arbor didn’t suddenly become walkable as they started to sprawl in the mid-20th century; they’d been that way all along.

    I agree, too, that new infill shouldn’t all take the form of expensive high-rises. We need a mix of housing types: public housing, affordable rentals, and standard market-rate housing, not just overpriced luxury units, and single-family homes, duplexes, townhomes and mid-rise apartments in addition to high-rises. Given the choice between an exurban $300,000 McMansion and a $200,000 downtown condo, a lot of folks would choose the latter, and you can bet that a lot of students would rather be living in decent high-rise apartments instead of decaying, subdivided flats, freeing up the latter homes for families.

    As I noted earlier, Ann Arbor’s population has been stable at 110,000 or so since 1980, even as the county population skyrocketed by 100,000. I call that population growth, and while I’m not sure how sustainable population growth is, I’m quite sure that if some of that population had been able to live in Ann Arbor, where they actually have (admittedly limited) transit service, we’d have a much more sustainable county with a much improved quality of life.

    Sprawl isn’t inevitable, nor is it primarily a creature of the market economy. There are a range of deeper causes, but if we look exclusively at direct causes, the two most obvious ones are government policies: transportation spending oriented almost exclusively towards the car, and zoning that mandates a single kind of low-density development.

    The AHP changes are no panacea. Even cities that have made progress towards sustainability by similar means have been limited by the persistence of enormous institutional supports for sprawl (like highway-centric federal transportation policy). But I believe progress is possible, not to mention necessary, given the fact of climate change. And the AHP changes represent, to my mind, a big step forward, for Ann Arbor’s sustainability and our quality of life.

  11. By Cindy Overmyer
    December 7, 2010 at 11:58 am | permalink

    “Big Box Store” doesn’t automatically mean “Big Parking Lot” – Target, Home Depot and Lowes all have mega stores in Manhattan (and Brooklyn) without the attendant parking acreage. One of the nicest Target stores I’ve ever shopped covers (at 7 stories high)a whole block of downtown Minneapolis (their headquarters flagship store)with a parking structure nearby and the famous Mpls Skyways running right through it. The big grocery stores in downtown Chicago also have no parking lots or street parking, but they do just fine. Zoning & setback regs were obviously set aside or readjusted for these stores. Why couldn’t this example be followed here?

  12. By Cindy Overmyer
    December 7, 2010 at 12:38 pm | permalink

    A couple of other thoughts –

    re: Green Golf Courses -
    Yes, a golf course can be green, or at least a lot greener than they have been in the past. In the last 10-15 years, golf course managers have greatly reduced herbicide/pesticide use, changed mowing practices, increased native plantings & rain gardens in sensitive areas, and redesigned courses for better drainage and erosion control,as well as monitoring water purity in streams and ponds. Fox Hills out on North Territorial was the area leader in this in the 1990′s(recognized by both the Audubon Society and NWF as bird & wildlife sanctuaries). Leslie & Huron Hills golf courses both proactively manage their lands along similar stewardship practices, as they cover major acreage in the Huron River watershed. With good management, any open land is by default “greener” than the same acreage covered with impervious surfaces like roads, roofs and parking lots.

    Re: Lack of Parking at Whole Foods (and other places)
    A growing number of shoppers I’ve met at Whole Foods and Trader Joes particularly, get there by other means to avoid the parking snarl. On my last visit to WF, I met shoppers using grocery carts on the bus, and at least 3 who towed their purchases home on child bike trailers. I always ride my bike to Whole Foods and tote things home in the panniers. More importantly, I’ve seen a big increase in people using the portable carts to shop at Hillers, Busch’s and Krogers – mainline grocery stores where people go much more often. Since the newer AATA busses have no stairs to climb and the “Stroller Spot” where you can wheel your cart out of the aisle and out of everyone’s way, shopping by bus has become much easier, more common and more on the bus drivers’ radar. A big improvement from my experience in 1984, trying to bring my new portable T.V. home from Briarwood on the bus and being told “It’s too big, you can’t bring it on here”.

    re: Maple Village

    Amen to that! How about also the former Georgetown Mall area on Packard?

  13. By Jack Eaton
    December 7, 2010 at 12:51 pm | permalink

    Joel, downtown Ann Arbor is a great place to walk, but that does not make it a walkable neighborhood in the urban density sense of allowing residents to forgo automobile ownership. We have sub-standard transit (6am to 10pm, once or twice per hour). Downtown does not have grocery stores and has just a few retail operations. Contrast our downtown with the image Cindy portrays of walkable communities in huge cities. But even if downtown becomes that ideal car-less neighborhood, you have to remember that the Area Height and Placement changes do not apply to the downtown.

    As long as big box stores have the alternative of locating outside the city where there is room for surface parking, they will not build in locations that require expensive parking structures.

    People who use the bus, walk or bike to retail outlets are not dissuaded by large setbacks. The bus rider is more inconvenienced by routing that requires a trip downtown and back to get from one outlying location to another nearby location than by the walk across the parking lot at the end of the bus ride. The pedestrian and the bicyclist are more inconvenienced by the hostile traffic on streets like Stadium than by the walk across the Kmart parking lot. Reducing the setback between road and storefront addresses only a tiny encumbrance for those who might forgo automobiles.

    Very few transportation trips are taken by foot, bike or bus. That is unlikely to change anytime soon. Rather than adopting the “if we don’t provide parking they will come by bus” planning, we should work to improve transportation systems. Longer hours of operation, more frequent scheduling, and improved perimeter routing are more likely to decrease car use than any changes to our planning regulations. But instead of improving urban transit, we are about to fund sprawl-encouraging commuter rail.

    The population of the city is declining. The city and county have lost substantial numbers of jobs. Planning for growth addresses something other than the reality we face. Building extravagantly sized structures only adds to the amount of vacant property we already have.

    For urban density to work we would need to replace a significant portion of the existing buildings we have. That would cause a huge problem with the resulting carbon footprint. Conversely, if we do not replace a significant portion of the existing development, we will fail to reach the density levels that are supposed to create all benefits of urban density.

    The Area Height and Placement changes do not provide any particular solution to our loss of population and employment. The size and proximity changes do not provide greater environmental benefits than the carbon footprint problems that come from demolition and replacement style development. The AHP changes will only benefit developers who feel constrained by the old regulations.

  14. By John Floyd
    December 10, 2010 at 6:31 pm | permalink

    Using New York or Chicago for comparisons to Ann Arbor is hard for me to understand. What works for a city of 8 million, or a city of 3 million, might possibly be informative for our town of about 100,000, but it seems like an unlikely place to start.

    Among the reasons these are unlikely places for comparison is that these central cities exist inside of, and depend upon, metropolitan areas that are MUCH larger – millions of people larger – than the cities themselves. Chicago’s metropolitan population is 8 million people – more than twice the size of Chicago proper. Most “Chicagoans” do not live in Chicago. Is this the model we want for Ann Arbor? (This, i suspect, was what Mr. Eaton saw when he described dense cities as made possible by the sprawl around them. BTW, I thought the idea in Ann Arbor was to capture most of the “suburban” population in the city). People who live near the Chicago lakefront cannot reasonably go to the suburbs to shop; this ain’t the case for people living in Ashley Terrace, who can be at Meijer’s in 15 minutes. This size difference creates a whole different dynamic for the flow of daily life, from commuting to shopping.

    Michigan is hungry for a functional central city. In that sense, I can understand the longings of those who wish to turn Ann Arbor into the new half-million to one million population center of Southeast Michigan. It’s not obvious how realistic this dream is – nor how desirable.

    What I think Ann Arbor could do would be to create a model for how towns of our size can once again be the places to be in, not the places to be near. Among the elements no one discusses is decorum: when you live cheek-by-jowel, your quality of life is greatly affected by the behavior of your neighbors, and those who pass through your neighborhood. One of the principle reasons people prefer to live in less-dense environments (beyond an impulse to greenery and gardens) is that in those settings, you have a tad more control over the circumstances of your home life. This is a point that The Dense seem never to get, but that may well be the key social dynamic in the urban-surban dynamic. In America, people tend to flee urban settings when they can; an urbane setting, on the other hand, may well be the key to making Town a desirable place to settle. People live in Westchester County, NY or Lake County, IL, because, among other reasons, these are actually more urbane than the cities they are near. In Lake County, your neighbors might or might not be a tad more respectful of their neighbors than in many Chicago neighborhoods, but in any case they and their music are not living in the apartment above you. Decorum and urbanity matter.

    Among the ironies of the claims made to want “density” or “walkable neighborhoods and downtown” are that the parts of Ann Arbor that were built “dense” and “walkable”, and which remain that way today, are precisely those targeted for demolition in the name of “transit-oriented development”, and “expanding downtown”. These buzzwords seem, as others here have suggested, to be euphemisms for subsidizing precisely the kind of building that will reduce our urbanity and increase our urbanism.

    A great threat to a “dense” yet livable Ann Arbor is the University’s North Campus. The absence of significant student housing there is one of the things that makes central Ann Arbor so unattractive to workers and families. Students drive up the cost of housing, while bringing the kegger lifestyle to wherever they settle. A sufficient mass of attractive housing on North Campus would free up the older, smaller homes of central Ann Arbor for suburban residents to occupy.

    Another great barrier to people wanting to live in Ann Arbor is its government. Expensive, obsessed with short-term Planning fads and often focused on issues that are not within its authority, I encounter many, many suburbanites who are frightened of the idea of living inside its maw. Until this problem is fixed, Ann Arbor seems likely to follow in the steps of every other failed central city in America: perhaps a place to live near, but certainly not the place to live in.

    Mr. Eaton hit on another key point: it is the city’s intention to place its “transit oriented development” inside of Tax Increment Financing districts. The point of Tax Increment Financing is to ensure that new revenues from development do not make it into the city’s general fund. There will be no new revenues from new development, under this model, to support general city government.

    Lastly, I would like to see what “People-Oriented Development” would look like. What ever it is, I bet it looks a lot more sustainable that development oriented around particular technologies.

    If Ann Arbor were doing things right, you would see suburban residents clamoring to be annexed. I think the reason we are not seeing this is NOT because people are waiting for Transit Oriented Development Tax Increment Financing Districts to be established.

  15. By Cindy Overmyer
    December 13, 2010 at 3:01 pm | permalink

    Yes, I suppose NYC and Chicago aren’t great comparisons, but the reason I mentioned them was simply for the astonishment that a big box store could even exist in those places. Having never seen a Home Depot without a huge parking lot was a pleasant surprise – Yes, Virginia, it CAN be done! And Target, with all of the Minneapolis area (including the Mall of America) to put its flagship store, CHOSE to put it downtown, again without the huge parking lot. Minneapolis isn’t all that big, but is very sprawled out for its size, and is trying to do something about it. Political will and choice of how/where to build and support of the transportation networks to get there DO happen and DO matter – and can be an ehoouragement to us.