Balancing Ann Arbor, Detroit – and a Vision

Ann Arbor's place in the Patchwork Nation

[Editor's Note: HD, a.k.a. Dave Askins, editor of The Ann Arbor Chronicle, is also publisher of an online series of interviews on a teeter totter. Introductions to new Teeter Talks, like this one, also appear on The Chronicle's website.]

Dante Chinne Patchwork Nation

Dante Chinni, co-athor of "Our Patchwork Nation." That's a Tigers cap he's wearing, and it's not accidental.

“I don’t want to be another city. I resent the fact that we are compared to other cities when projects are being proposed.”

That was Ali Ramlawi, owner of the Jerusalem Garden on South Fifth Avenue in downtown Ann Arbor, addressing the April 4, 2011 meeting of the Ann Arbor city council. He was criticizing the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, and advocating against a proposed conference center and hotel project on the Library Lot – the council voted the project down later that evening.

“Ann Arbor will change … but it won’t become Detroit.”

That was Dante Chinni, while riding the the teeter totter on my front porch last Thursday afternoon. Chinni has made it part of his job to compare communities like Ann Arbor – Washtenaw County, actually – to other places in the country.

Who is Dante Chinni? And why should Ann Arbor care what he thinks?

On his website, Chinni describes himself as a “a card-carrying member of the East Coast Media Industrial Complex.” The part of his job that lets him compare one place to another – in a statistically sophisticated way – is a project Chinni conceived called Patchwork Nation. It’s funded by the Knight Foundation. The effort has already produced a book, which he co-authored with James Gimpel: “Our Patchwork Nation: The Surprising Truth about the ‘Real’ America.”

Washtenaw County is featured in the chapter that introduces readers to the concept of a “Campus and Careers” community type. The classification, as well as a read through Dante’s Talk, confirm that mostly what defines Ann Arbor – at least for people on the outside looking in – is its place as the home of the University of Michigan. And certainly for people on the inside, it’s difficult to argue that UM isn’t currently the single most important institution in the community.

But some insiders – and by this I mean not just people who live, work and play here, but actual Ann Arbor insiders – are starting to float the question of what else Ann Arbor might aspire to be besides home to “the most profound educational institution in the Midwest.”

Vision of Ann Arbor: Non-Physical (DDA Partnerships)

“The most profound educational institution in the Midwest” was David Di Rita’s description of UM, which came in the context of a meeting of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority’s partnerships committee on Wednesday morning, April 13. Di Rita, a principal with the Roxbury Group, served as a consultant on the RFP review process for the Library Lot, which the city council terminated two weeks ago.

The partnerships committee meeting was one of insiders – both at the committee table and in the audience.

At the table besides Di Rita were: DDA board members John Mouat, Russ Collins, Gary Boren, Sandi Smith, Bob Guenzel and John Splitt, along with Susan Pollay, executive director of the DDA, and city councilmember Tony Derezinski. Invited to the table mid-meeting were Josie Parker, executive director of the Ann Arbor District Library – who brought along AADL board member Nancy Kaplan – and Jesse Bernstein, chair of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority board.

In the audience sat other easily recognizable names: Vivienne Armentrout (former Washtenaw County commissioner), Peter Allen (developer), Mary Hathaway (prominent activist for peace and social justice), Alice Ralph (former candidate for county board, city council, and author of a community commons proposal for the Library Lot), Tom Wieder (local attorney and long-time city Democratic Party activist), John Floyd (former candidate for city council), and Sabra Briere (city councilmember).

Part of the committee’s agenda was a discussion of how to approach beginning a process that the city council has agreed to let the DDA lead. The process could result in the development of different uses for four city-owned downtown parcels currently used for surface parking: the Kline Lot on South Ashley, the Palio Lot at Main and William, the old Y Lot at Fifth and William; and the Library Lot on South Fifth. The Library Lot is actually currently a construction site – the DDA is building a roughly 640-space underground parking garage on the site. [Chronicle coverage: "Ann Arbor Council Focuses on Downtown"]

Bernstein weighed in for a process that would begin with figuring out a vision: Where do we aspire to be in 30 years? He pointed to the AATA’s process of developing a transit master plan – still in the works – as an example of that kind of approach. [Chronicle coverage: "'Smart Growth' to Fuel Countywide Transit" ]

Parker shared some of the hurdles that are inherent in the library’s future plans for its downtown building – plans that are currently on hold. Those challenges involve the historical relationship between the library and the Ann Arbor Public Schools (the district has a right of first refusal on any offer to sell the building) and the need to ask voters to increase the library millage in order to fund a new building. [Chronicle coverage: "Citing Economy, Board Halts Library Project"]

Remarks from Mouat, a DDA board member, seemed to resonate with Allen, a developer seated in the audience. [Allen has long called for the master planning of the whole area around the Library Lot, not just the Library Lot itself. Chronicle coverage: "Column: Visions for the Library Lot"]

Mouat suggested that the process could include developing a vision for Ann Arbor that is not physical. To explain what he meant, Mouat noted that Austin is known as a “music capital” and Boulder is known as a “recreation capital.” Ann Arbor, he said, is known as the home of the University of Michigan – but what is Ann Arbor beyond the university? he asked. He said that for his part, he could imagine Ann Arbor becoming some kind of “food capital.”

Vision of Ann Arbor: Third Base, Caboose, Engine

Compared to Mouat’s vision of an Ann Arbor that is distinctive, but not based on the presence of the university, Di Rita’s take on Ann Arbor seemed closer to building that vision based on the university connection. In assessing the Library Lot location, he noted that its three major advantages are: (1) the nearby location of other institutions – the library and the transit center; (2) the nearby location of the restaurant and entertainment district; (3) the short walk to the university.

Di Rita sees Ann Arbor as being born to hit a triple – now it’s standing on third base. The question is: Does it want to run home? Ann Arbor could really take things to the next level, he said, but the question is whether there’s a community desire to do that. He said that based on the major stakeholders in the community he’d spoken with, there’s support among them to head towards home plate.

Di Rita noted that one of the things that makes Ann Arbor distinct is that even a person who lives out on Scio Church Road might have strong objections to a proposal for downtown Ann Arbor. In other cities, he said, it’s sometimes the case that only the immediately adjacent neighbors have objections. But that’s not the way Ann Arbor works, he said, and you have to “play the ball where it lies.”

Di Rita sees growth for Ann Arbor, even if it just stands on third base as far as its vision for itself – buildings are going to get built, he said.

Dante Chinni didn’t attend the partnerships committee meeting – by then he had returned to Washington, D.C. But I can imagine him agreeing with at least some of what Di Rita had to say. To Chinni, the most salient and distinctive part of Ann Arbor is the university. And he sees Ann Arbor’s growth as fueled by growth at the university. The Patchwork Nation analysis slots Washtenaw County into the “Campus and Career” community type. But Ann Arbor is surely much more than just the university, right? What does Chinni know – he’s not from here.

But Chinni actually is from here – or more accurately, from around these parts: He grew up in Warren. So he’s at least not as susceptible as other east-coast media types to thinking of Michigan as one place, typified by Detroit. From his Talk:

I mean, most people who don’t live here view Michigan as Detroit. They don’t even really think of the northern part of Michigan. And when you tell them that, Oh, no the county right next door to it, the unemployment rate is really only about, what 6 or 7 percent …

When Chinni was in town two years ago, Ann Arbor was being described by our local officials as a life preserver for the rest of the state. A couple of weeks ago, at a different meeting of Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority board members, mayor John Hieftje described the state of Michigan as a train, headed over a cliff. But Ann Arbor was the caboose, Hieftje said, so we’d be the last to go over the cliff.

On the totter, Chinni and I agreed that maybe that train metaphor needs tweaking a bit – instead of a caboose, maybe Ann Arbor should be compared to an engine hooked to the other end pulling Michigan’s train away from the cliff. Specifically in the recovery of Detroit, Chinni sees a role for Ann Arbor:

This is what I think is going to happen: It’s not going to be that Ann Arbor’s just going to grow and grow and get really big and Detroit is to get smaller and smaller and smaller and all the people to move out here. Ann Arbor is going to become a bigger and bigger economic force and eventually that will rub off on Detroit.

And as Ann Arbor becomes a bigger and bigger economic force, Chinni thinks Ann Arbor will change:

Ann Arbor will change as part of that, but it won’t become Detroit. If Ann Arbor is successful at helping Detroit become what it can become, Ann Arbor will change, too. People who don’t think it’s been a change, Ann Arbor has changed since 1980. It has. I know people here don’t want to hear that, but it has changed. It is not the same city as it was back then. I mean politically, the student body has changed – it’s a different place.

So as Ann Arbor changes, I think it’s worth asking if the residents of Ann Arbor will be able to reach a consensus on a vision of this place that might help guide that change. And it looks like an attempt to find that consensus will be part of the DDA-led process to look at those four downtown parcels.

I hope that people who participate in the process along the way are prepared to accept that the community consensus vision might be different from their personal vision.

Patchwork Politics

It’s worth noting that Patchwork Nation is not a project borne out of desire to help Ann Arbor figure out its vision. It was born out of a desire to understand politics in the U.S. on a more detailed level than the red-state/blue-state maps the media tends to use around election time.

That goal led Chinni to take a county-by-county approach, which resulted in an analysis of each U.S. county as one of 12 types: Boom Towns, Campus and Careers, Emptying Nests, Evangelical Epicenters, Immigration Nation, Industrial Metropolis, Military Bastions, Minority Central, Monied Burbs, Mormon Outposts, Service Worker Centers, Tractor Country. [For interactive maps of the Patchwork analysis, visit the Patchwork Nation website.]

I’ve written about the book before, when then-candidate for mayor Steve Bean graced the other end of the teeter totter last fall.

As Chinni pointed out during his ride, everything that’s said about the community types is more true of the type than it is about individual places categorized by a type.

Still, I think it’s natural for anyone who picks up the book to find their own community and decide if Chinni and Gimpel got it right. What will also be interesting to see is if the Patchwork approach begins to serve as a reliable tool for getting more insight into national-level politics.

On the totter, Chinni described how he’ll be partnering with the PBS Newshour on upcoming 2012 election coverage, offering insight on those races from the Patchwork point of view. It’s possible we’ll start to see the Patchwork analysis seep into the approach taken by the media to its election coverage and analysis for the 2012 cycle.

For Chinni’s views in more detail and context, read Dante Chinni’s Talk.