How do Ann Arbor’s land use policies affect where people live and work, and the way they get from one place to another? What is the city doing to support sustainable approaches?
Issues of land use and accessibility were the topic of a sustainability forum on Feb. 9, the second in a series that’s part of a broader city sustainability initiative. During the forum, city staff also unveiled a set of draft goals for Ann Arbor related to four general sustainability themes: Resource management; land use and access; climate and energy; and community.
Wendy Rampson, head of the city’s planning staff, told the audience that the 15 draft goals were extracted from more than 200 that had been identified in existing city planning documents. The hope is to reach consensus on these sustainability goals, then present them to the city council as possible amendments to the city’s master plan.
Speakers at the Feb. 9 forum included Joe Grengs, a University of Michigan associate professor of urban and regional planning; Susan Pollay, executive director of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority; Eli Cooper, the city’s transportation program manager and member of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority board; Jeff Kahan of the city’s planning staff; Ginny Trocchio, who manages the city’s greenbelt program; and Evan Pratt of the city’s planning commission.
A Q&A followed presentations by the speakers and covered a wide range of topics, including thoughts on the proposed Fuller Road Station. The following day, Feb. 10, the city and University of Michigan announced plans to halt the initial phase of that controversial project – a large parking structure near the UM medical campus.
The topics of the series of forums reflect four general sustainability themes: Resource management; land use and access; climate and energy; and community. The first forum, held in January, focused on resource management, including water, solid waste, the urban forest and natural areas.
All forums are held at the downtown Ann Arbor District Library and are being videotaped by AADL staff. The videos will be posted on the library’s website. Additional background on the Ann Arbor sustainability initiative is on the city’s website. See also Chronicle coverage: “Building a Sustainable Ann Arbor,” and an update on the project given at the November 2011 park advisory commission meeting.
Draft Sustainability Goals
The Feb. 9 forum was moderated by Wendy Rampson, the city’s planning manager. She said it’s hoped that the city’s sustainability effort, and these forums in particular, will serve as a springboard for a community discussion and help set overarching sustainability goals.
The overall sustainability initiative started informally nearly two years ago, with a joint meeting of the city’s planning, environmental and energy commissions. The idea is to help shape decisions by looking at a triple bottom line: environmental quality, economic vitality, and social equity.
In early 2011, the city received a $95,000 grant from the Home Depot Foundation to fund a formal sustainability project. The project set out to review the city’s existing plans and organize them into a framework of goals, objectives and indicators that can guide future planning and policy. The overall project also aimed to improve access to the city’s plans and to the sustainability components of each plan, and to incorporate the concept of sustainability into city planning and future city plans.
In addition to city staff, this work was initially guided by volunteers who serve on four city advisory commissions: park, planning, energy and environmental. Members from those groups met at a joint working session in late September of 2011. Since then, the city’s housing commission and housing & human services commission have been added to the conversation, Rampson said. Many of those members attended the Feb. 9 forum, which was held at the downtown Ann Arbor District Library and drew around 100 people.
Over the past year, city staff and a committee made of up members from several city advisory commissions have evaluated the city’s 27 existing planning documents and pulled out 226 goals from those plans that relate to sustainability. From there, they prioritized the goals and developed a small subset to present for discussion.
The draft goals are:
Climate & Energy
- Sustainable Energy: Improve access to and support use of renewable energy by all members of our community.
- Energy Conservation: Reduce energy consumption and eliminate net greenhouse gas emissions in our community.
- High Performance Buildings: Increase efficiency in new and existing buildings within our community.
- Engaged Community: Ensure our community is strongly connected through outreach, opportunities for engagement, and stewardship of community resources.
- Diverse Housing: Provide high quality, safe, efficient, and affordable housing choices to meet the current and future needs of our community, particularly for low-income households.
- Safe Community: Minimize risk to public health and property from manmade and natural hazards.
- Active Living: Improve quality of life by providing diverse cultural, recreational, and educational opportunities for all members of our community.
- Economic Vitality: Create a resilient economy that provides access to employment opportunities, supports a diverse range of economic activities, and attracts investment to our community.
- Transportation Options: Establish a physical and cultural environment that supports and encourages safe, comfortable and efficient ways for pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit users to travel throughout the city and region.
- Sustainable Systems: Plan for and manage constructed and natural infrastructure systems to meet the current and future needs of our community.
- Efficient Land Use: Encourage a compact pattern of diverse development that maintains our sense of place, preserves our natural systems, and strengthens our neighborhoods, corridors, and downtown.
- Clean Air and Water: Eliminate pollutants in our air and water systems.
- Healthy Ecosystems: Conserve, protect, enhance, and restore our aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems.
- Responsible Resource Use: Produce zero waste and optimize the use and reuse of resources in our community.
- Local Food: Conserve, protect, enhance, and restore our local agriculture and aquaculture resource.
Rampson described the proposed goals as “very, very drafty.” A public meeting to discuss the goals will be held on March 29. Feedback can also be sent to the city via email at email@example.com.
Sustainability & Land Use: Framing the Issue
Joe Grengs – a UM associate professor of urban and regional planning – led off remarks from the panel at the Feb. 9 forum. He began by saying it was great to discuss these issues, and that there are very committed people in the city who are willing to take risks and do things in innovative ways. His task at the forum was to frame the discussion of land use and sustainability, and he planned to do it through the lens of one idea – interaction.
The real estate adage of “location, location, location” is really just a way of saying that place matters, Grengs said. Where you’re situated has an impact on your ability to interact with people and places – at schools, stores, work, and places of worship. Each location ties you to a network of opportunities and constraints. For example, it determines your social network, to some extent. It determines your educational opportunities – a family living just across the border in one school district might be able to send their kids to a great school, while the family on the other side of the district border might be going to a school with a weaker reputation.
Location is very much rooted in factors like income and race, he noted, and it’s central to determining the degree to which people interact. Transportation and land use also have a lot to do with interaction. To illustrate, Grengs presented a scenario. It’s Saturday afternoon, and you have four errands to run. Your teenager needs to get to high school for theater rehearsal, while your youngest child must get to the park for soccer practice. You have to drop by the drugstore to pick up a prescription, and as you’re leaving, your partner asks you to stop at the party store to get some candy.
To do these errands, would you rather travel slow or fast? Grengs asked. Most people would answer fast, he said, but his answer is: It depends. He said he’d ask how much total time it takes to do the errands – that’s more important than your speed of travel. So if you’re traveling slower but the places you need to be are close to you, it will take less time to do the errands. Proximity is crucial, Grengs said.
Yet transportation policies and our government’s codes and standards emphasize mobility and speed, Grengs observed. If that’s your end goal, then the means of achieving that goal include things like capacity expansion – more roads, more lanes of traffic – and ease of parking. But there’s a better way, he contended.
What if the goal is accessibility, Grengs asked, measured by the amount of interactions you can accomplish within a given period? And this really is our goal, he noted. With some exceptions, you’re not getting in the car and traveling to a location just because you like to drive. You’re interested in reaching the destination.
So what tools can you use to achieve the goal of accessibility? Mobility is one way, Grengs said. Connectivity – including the use of technology, like the Internet – is another. A third way of achieving accessibility is proximity – and that’s what land use policies can address.
In looking at these methods of achieving accessibility, Grengs noted that there’s a tension between mobility and proximity. Mobility is important when destinations are spread out, like in a rural or suburban setting. People travel on freeways or other major roads at high speeds to get from place to place. In contrast, in a place like Manhattan everything is close together. You won’t be traveling fast, or far. But in terms of accessibility, proximity helps residents accomplish more even though they’re moving more slowly, Grengs said.
Grengs concluded his remarks by making two final points. When a community takes steps to increase mobility, it’s important to stop and ask: Is this hurting us in terms of proximity? An example is sprawl – when infrastructure like roads is built farther out, developers respond by building in those far-ranging locations, and it undermines the goal of accessibility.
The other question to ask is: How can a community achieve its goal of accessibility? It’s a two-part recipe, Grengs said: (1) by making accessible places, through transportation and land use policies; and (2) by encouraging people to live and work in accessible places. Usually, he said, a community needs high density to achieve those goals.
Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority
Wendy Rampson introduced Susan Pollay, executive director of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, by noting that the DDA was originally formed to support parking and infrastructure projects. But its work has shifted over the years from mobility issues to an increasing focus on accessibility, Rampson said.
Pollay began by noting that the downtown doesn’t exist in isolation. She briefly reviewed the history of DDAs, noting that 1972 state-enabling legislation allowed the creation of these authorities in order to support economic development. There are now about 300 DDAs in Michigan, she said. The Ann Arbor DDA was formed in 1982 and over the years has been known for its management of the city’s parking system. In 2003 the DDA’s development plan was amended and renewed by the city for 30 years, and sustainability was one of its eight key goals. The aim, Pollay said, is for the downtown to be ”the sustainable heart of a sustainable city.”
The DDA supports that goal with different approaches, Pollay said. Regarding land use, the organization acts as an advocate. The DDA supported land conservation millages that were put on the ballot – and ultimately approved by voters – for the county and the city, she said. The authority also supports zoning that encourages residential development in the downtown area, Pollay said.
She noted between 1990 and 2000, there was no population growth in the DDA district. But the 2010 census showed that the DDA district had gained 1,263 new residents – a 30% increase since 2000 – for a total of 4,607 residents. That’s at a time when the city and state lost population, she said.
Transportation is another approach that the DDA uses to achieve sustainability, Pollay said. More than 60,000 people commute into Ann Arbor each day. The idea is to get people out of those vehicles and using other forms of transportation. The DDA has provided grants for increasing service along the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority’s #4 Route between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. Grants are also supporting (1) the AATA express routes between Ann Arbor, Chelsea and Canton; (2) parking for AATA service to the airport, which is expected to launch in March; (3) an exploratory study for commuter rail between Ann Arbor and Howell; and (4) a feasibility study for a transit connector between Ann Arbor’s north and south sides.
Pollay also pointed to the DDA’s financial support of the getDowntown program, noting that there’s been a dramatic shift in the number of people who use alternative transportation, including public transit and bicycling. Since 2002, the DDA has funded 95% of the program’s go!pass, which provides free bus passes to more than 7,300 employees of downtown businesses. In 2011, more than 630,000 rides were taking using the go!pass, Pollay said – a 15% increase compared to 2010. [For a roundup of ridership data, including go!pass usage, see "Transit: Ridership Data Roundup"]
Other transportation-oriented initiatives that the DDA helps fund include bike parking and lockers, free parking for motorcycles and mopeds, a Night Ride service, the Zipcar car-sharing service, and grants to groups like the Washtenaw Bicycling and Walking Coalition. Pollay said that 33% of downtown employees who own cars choose not to drive them to work.
The DDA also supports efforts to make the downtown more walkable, Pollay said. In addition to major streetscape improvement projects, other efforts include creating topiaries and edible landscaping, window display contests, and trip hazard/sidewalk maintenance.
Pollay pointed to sustainability as a component of construction projects supported by the DDA. For example, the authority provided a grant to the city of Ann Arbor to cover LEED certification costs on the city’s new municipal building. And the new underground parking garage that the DDA is building along South Fifth Avenue will include elements like electric-car stations, energy-saving fixtures, reuse of excavation site materials, and 100% stormwater detention.
Energy-saving programs are another way that the DDA supports sustainability, Pollay said. The DDA provided a grant to install LED lights downtown, for example, and has funded about 120 energy audits for downtown businesses. The authority tries to highlight these efforts whenever possible, Pollay said, to let the public know how the city is working toward sustainability. She cited signs at the Fifth and William surface parking lot as an example, explaining how pervious pavement is used there to handle stormwater runoff.
Pollay concluded by noting that many of these projects are accomplished by partnering with other entities.
Sustainability and Transportation
Eli Cooper, the city’s transportation program manager, spoke about the city’s efforts to encourage different modes of transportation. Nationwide, in 1960 about 60% of people used a private vehicle as their primary mode of transportation to work. That number increased to nearly 90% by 2000, he noted. But in Ann Arbor, only about 70% use a private vehicle to get to work – and that percentage has been relatively flat since the 1970s.
So Ann Arbor has found a way to bend the trends, Cooper said. What makes the city special, and what can be done to strengthen the aspects of transportation that are sustainable?
The number of people who walk to work in Ann Arbor is about four times the national average, Cooper said. Policies that relate to sidewalk maintenance and pedestrian crossings help make that a safer option, he said, noting that the city recently adjusted its ordinance on pedestrian crossings. The city realizes that walking is a very sustainable mode of transportation, he said.
Going up the transportation hierarchy is bicycling, Cooper said. The city and University of Michigan have had a bicycle coordinating committee dating back to the 1970s. This year, the number of bike lanes in the city will exceed 40 miles, he said, and 3.5% of residents use bikes to commute from work – up from 2.3% in 2000. Bicyclists are burning calories, not carbon, Cooper quipped, and that’s part of the sustainability equation.
While walking and bicycling satisfy shorter trips, Cooper said, public transit gets you anywhere you want to go. He said the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority provides a fantastic service in a sustainable way. [Cooper was recently appointed to the AATA board.] Some buses in the fleet use biodiesel fuel, he noted, and about 50% of the fleet are hybrid electric buses.
Cooper also discussed railroad service in Ann Arbor, noting that investments are being made at the state and federal level to improve the tracks between Chicago and Detroit – passing through Ann Arbor – to make service more reliable. Work on a commuter rail service between Ypsilanti and Detroit is also underway, he said, although no dates have yet been set for when that might start.
Despite all of this, automobiless are still the main mode of transportation, Cooper noted, even in Ann Arbor. Auto technology is becoming more sustainable, he said, so the challenge is how the city can encourage people to use those more sustainable types of vehicles. That might include putting in charging stations for electric vehicles, or expanding car-sharing programs, he said.
Land Preservation: Ann Arbor’s Greenbelt
Ginny Trocchio gave an overview of the city’s greenbelt program – she’s a staff member of The Conservation Fund, which is under contract with the city to manage the program. The greenbelt is funded through a 30-year, 0.5 mill tax that voters approved in 2003 for land preservation and acquisition. A portion of that millage is used for parks acquisition, Trocchio said, but her presentation would focus on the greenbelt, which protects land outside of the city from development.
Most of the land preservation occurs through the purchase of conservation easements, she said. The property remains in private ownership, but there are restrictions on what can be done on the land, ensuring that the land isn’t developed and that its natural features are preserved. City staff go out to the properties once a year to monitor compliance.
Why is there a need for a greenbelt? Trocchio noted that in 2003, the real estate market and overall economy were quite different than today. Farmland and open space was being bought and converted into residential subdivisions, and there were concerns about the amount of sprawl that this area was seeing.
Since the millage was passed, Ann Arbor has protected over 3,500 acres within the greenbelt’s boundary, Trocchio reported. The city has also been able to leverage its investment on a one-to-one dollar match, by partnering with other entities. More recently, land prices have also worked in the program’s favor. When the greenbelt program was launched, land prices were about $16,000 per acre, Trocchio said. Now, that price has fallen closer to $4,000.
The city has also been able to secure more matching funds in recent years, both from federal sources as well as local partners like Washtenaw County, which has its own millage to protect open space and farmland. Some townships in the county – including the townships of Ann Arbor and Webster – also have land preservation millages, and have partnered with the greenbelt program.
Trocchio briefly reviewed the program’s finances, noting that the city had taken out a $20 million bond in fiscal year 2006 and is making payments with proceeds from the millage. In addition to debt service, expenses include greenbelt purchases. [For a detailed financial update on the greenbelt program, see Chronicle coverage of a September 2011 meeting of the greenbelt advisory commission.]
While there’s not the same kind of development pressure now, Trocchio cited food security as an issue, and noted that the city is building a sustainable perimeter of farmland. The program is also protecting land in the Huron River watershed, she noted, and protecting the region’s water supply. Other attributes of the greenbelt include preservation of scenic views, and in some cases support of educational and recreational opportunities – the Fox Science Preserve, a partnership with Washtenaw County, is an example of that, she said.
Ann Arbor Planning Policy
Two panelists addressed sustainability from the city’s planning perspective: Jeff Kahan of the city’s planning staff, and Evan Pratt, a member of the Ann Arbor planning commission.
Kahan told the audience that Ann Arbor has been pushing for sustainability before people even knew the word. He described five elements of the city’s sustainable land use: (1) natural systems preservation; (2) adaptive re-use; (3) land use efficiency; (4) mixed use development; and (5) pedestrian/transit-oriented development.
Protecting natural areas is one of the things the city does best, Kahan said. Ann Arbor was the first in Michigan to insert language into its city code to protect wetlands, landmark trees, woodlands and other natural areas, he said. And it was the second city in the nation to require on-site stormwater detention.
Adaptive re-use has been done in the city for decades, without thinking about it in terms of sustainability, Kahan said. Examples in town include the Gandy Dancer restaurant in a former train station, the Armory condo development at Fifth Avenue and Ann Street, Kerrytown Market and Shops, and Liberty Lofts.
Kahan then turned to land use efficiency, saying you couldn’t talk about it without mentioning the topic’s four-letter word, “which of course is ‘density.’” The city is preserving land in the greenbelt surrounding Ann Arbor, but the flip side of that is accommodating density in appropriate areas, he said, like the downtown and commercial corridors. Kahan also cited mixed-use developments – buildings that typically include a mix of retail shops and residential units – as being another land use approach that works downtown or in corridors like State Street or Washtenaw Avenue.
The city has also taken steps to encourage pedestrian- and transit-oriented development, Kahan said. He pointed to changes in the city code that have allowed buildings to be constructed closer to sidewalks, encouraging developers to put parking behind buildings rather than close to the street.
Evan Pratt discussed the role of the planning commission in land use and sustainability. He said a remark by Susan Pollay earlier in the forum had really resonated with him – that without partnerships, sustainability isn’t possible.
Pratt said the process of reviewing goals in the city’s various planning documents has been interesting. There’s a lot of crossover, and some conflicting goals as well. He likes the idea of developing a matrix for scoring projects, so that a blended perspective could be used to evaluate projects.
It’s important to develop good policies that encourage the types of projects that the city wants to see, Pratt said – projects that encourage people to live downtown, for example, and that add to the city’s vibrancy. As an example, Pratt pointed to the 618 S. Main project that the planning commission recommended for approval at its Jan. 19, 2012 meeting. It was a “planned project,” he said, which meant that by offering up certain premiums, the developer could get permission to build a structure taller than what zoning would otherwise allow. In this case, those premiums included capturing 100% of the stormwater runoff on-site, putting solar panels on the roof to help heat water for the building, and getting LEED certification – something that’s written into a development agreement with the city.
Pratt concluded by saying there was one big “eureka” moment in looking through the 226 goals that had been culled from city plans. The words “region” or “county” appeared only three times. So Pratt said he wanted to leave the audience with one question: In what areas does Ann Arbor need to broaden its horizons?
Questions & Comments
During the last part of the forum, panelists fielded questions and commentary from the audience. This report summarizes the questions and presents them thematically.
Questions & Comments: Huron River
Question: Is anything being done to make the Huron River more of an attraction?
Evan Pratt of the city’s planning commission noted that he’s also involved with the Huron River Watershed Council, a nonprofit that’s charged with protecting the river and its tributaries. [HRWC's website lists Pratt as chair of its board of directors.] Of all the city’s land use plans, he observed, none of them focus on the land adjacent to the river. The city’s Huron River and Impoundment Management Plan (HRIMP) turned into an Argo Dam argument, he said, but there are some recommendations in the plan that apply to land use around the river. For example, a recommendation for commercial development in the Broadway bridges area states:
Encourage limited development of a restaurant and/or other public-use facilities where the public congregates and can enjoy the river in the Broadway Bridge/Argo area, especially if it generates revenue for river planning and implementation.
Pratt said the planning commission is interested in revisiting the HRIMP recommendations. He also pointed to the county’s Border-to-Border trail for pedestrians and bicyclists, and said a similar initiative is underway for the Huron River. Called RiverUp! and coordinated by the watershed council, the idea is to encourage communities to turn their face to the river, Pratt said. Among other things, there’s an economic benefit to doing that, he said. [For Chronicle coverage of the initiative, see: "RiverUp! Focuses on Revitalizing Huron River"]
Ginny Trocchio noted that one goal of the city’s greenbelt program is to protect land located in the Huron River watershed.
Wendy Rampson of the city’s planning staff recalled that two decades ago, the parks and recreation open space (PROS) plan had identified a goal of developing a ring of parkland around Argo Pond. Much of the property at that time was owned by industrial firms, she said. Over the years, the city was able to acquire key parcels – including land that’s now Bandemer Park – and today that portion of the river has a trail system and more public access. It shows the value of planning documents and a vision in working toward a goal, Rampson said.
Questions & Comments: Urban Open Space
Question: What about the need for open space in downtown Ann Arbor? There’s been a debate about the Library Lot on South Fifth Avenue, and whether the top of the underground parking structure being built there should be open space or a high-rise building. [The underground parking is being built by the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority.] Research has shown the need for greenways and open space in urban areas, and how that kind of space generates economic development around it.
Noting that she lives near Dolph nature area on the city’s far west side, Susan Pollay of the DDA observed that the need for open space downtown is very different than in other parts of the city. Downtown open space poses different challenges and serves different purposes. Sculpture Plaza, at the corner of Fourth and Catherine, has been successful, she noted, while Liberty Plaza at Liberty and Division doesn’t feel as good.
Ingredients to Sculpture Plaza’s success include the fact that it’s small and manageable, Pollay said. It’s adjacent to retail stores, which helps animate the plaza – there’s usually activity there. Employees at the shops take ownership of the area, helping to clean it up. All of that is missing at Liberty Plaza, Pollay said. As the city looks at developing a greenway or deciding what goes atop the Library Lot, she indicated it will be important to learn from these other urban park experiences.
Urban areas also can serve multiple functions, Pollay noted. Main Street can be shut down for events like FestiFools. The surface parking lot next to Palio restaurant – at the corner of Main and William – is used for events like the annual car show and Taste of Ann Arbor. There are different needs and uses for open space, depending on the season, she said. Sidewalks are also important elements of urban open space, as are landscaped areas around parking lots. She noted that dogs, for example, need areas where owners can take them to do their business. The city can be smarter in thinking about the needs for downtown open space, Pollay concluded.
Jeff Kahan said the city’s planning staff is very interested in this issue. But you can’t simply apply suburban concepts – the notion that more is better – to the downtown, he said. Smaller, intimate spaces are more appropriate, like the farmers market, sidewalks, the Diag, or the bandshell at West Park. It’s important to remember that downtown users of open space aren’t likely looking for a large playground, he said. For one thing, not that many families with kids live downtown.
Eric Lipson, who had posed the original question, followed up by asking Pollay if she would support having a surface parking lot atop the underground parking structure that would also be used for community events. Absolutely, Pollay replied. She noted that the entry/exit ramps into the garage were specifically designed so that Library Lane – the small street running between Fifth and Division, just north of the downtown library – could be closed so that events could be held there. The point was to make cars secondary to that space, she said.
Lipson said everyone agrees that micro areas like Sculpture Plaza are needed. But there’s also a need for larger spaces, he said, like the Ingalls Mall area on the University of Michigan campus, where the Street Art Fair and Summer Festival‘s Top of the Park events are held. The Library Lot could serve the same purpose for the downtown, he said.
Wendy Rampson observed that the parks and recreation open space (PROS) plan is a good place for this kind of suggestion to be included.
Questions & Comments: Fuller Road Station
Clark Charnetski – a member of the AATA’s local advisory council – referred to Evan Pratt’s description of a blended perspective, and said that Fuller Road Station is an example of that. Tradeoffs are involved, he said, and it’s important to look at two locations: The existing Amtrak station on Depot Street, and the proposed Fuller Road Station.
Although Fuller Road Station would use three acres for parking and a train station, Charnetski said, it would free up space where the current train station is located, which is near property owned by DTE that’s being cleaned up and could possibly become a park along the Huron River. So the tradeoff is in favor of relocating the train station to Fuller Road Station, Charnetski concluded – that’s something to keep in mind. [Charnetski's remarks were made the day before news broke that the city of Ann Arbor and University of Michigan were suspending plans for Fuller Road Station's initial phase – a large parking structure located near UM's medical complex. See Chronicle coverage: "UM, Ann Arbor Halt Fuller Road Project"]
Wendy Rampson of the city’s planning staff noted that projects like Fuller Road Station and the Library Lot illustrate the difficult decisions that communities make on issues like density and transportation, and the appropriate locations for development. Eli Cooper, the city’s transportation program manager, said locating a train station next to a major employment site is fundamental in order to encourage walkability.
Rampson asked Joe Grengs – a UM associate professor of urban and regional planning – to comment on techniques that communities might use to grapple with these tensions. Grengs said focus groups and other methods can be used to draw out ideas. But regarding the Fuller Road Station project in particular, Grengs said he had some concerns. He didn’t believe the university needed more parking, and said there are steps that could be taken to reallocate parking within UM’s current infrastructure.
The Fuller Road Station project undermines the city’s stated sustainability goals, Grengs said, because the mode of parking falls into a completely different category than walking, biking and rail transit. All of those latter modes work well in areas of high density, he said. But cars work against that – they are “big, hulking objects” that simply sit all day, he observed. So to have 1,000 cars parked at that location every day, at a place where there should be opportunities for interaction – places for retail or recreation, for example – “to me is a mistake and I’d urge the city to think about that,” he concluded. Grengs’ remarks were met with a smattering of applause from the audience.
Later during the Q&A, Rita Mitchell said she agreed with Grengs regarding Fuller Road Station, and she urged the city to consider adaptive re-use of the existing site of the Amtrak station instead.
Questions & Comments: Public Transit & Housing
Jeaninne Palms told panelists that she really appreciated these public discussions on sustainability issues. [Palms was one of the organizers of the Transition Ann Arbor initiative, which focused on some of these same issues.] The forums bring up perspectives that people don’t often think about, she noted. Palms cited Grengs’ comments about accessibility, and observed that that Ann Arbor Transportation Authority recently increased the frequency of buses along Route #4, between Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor. She wondered what his thoughts were about making it more accessible for people who work in Ann Arbor to also live in Ann Arbor.
Grengs replied that Palms’ comment illustrates the point that addressing transportation goals can be done better by thinking about land use. Affordability is a barrier to living in Ann Arbor, he noted – it’s easier for low-income residents to live in Ypsilanti. So one way to solve the transportation problem is to create more affordable housing closer to jobs.
Evan Pratt pointed to the 618 S. Main project that planning commission recommended for approval in January. [See Chronicle coverage: "618 S. Main Project Gets Planning Support"] The apartment building will have a variety of unit sizes, he noted. [The proposal calls for 70 studio apartments, 70 one-bedroom units, 42 two-bedroom units, and 7 duplex units with 1 bedroom each.] The plan also includes 121 spaces for on-site parking, Pratt said, which is far fewer than the total number of bedrooms.
He also noted that the development “unbundles” parking – that is, tenants aren’t given a parking space as part of their lease. Parking spaces must be rented separately. The city wants to encourage that, Pratt said. It’s not possible to stop people from choosing to have a car, he said, but it’s possible to ensure that a choice must be made – that it’s not automatic for parking to be provided.
Wendy Rampson observed that the issue involves the question of density. If it’s important to have more workforce housing, that means more housing units will be needed. One way to accomplish that is through accessory apartments, she said. But when the city discussed that possibility a decade ago, the community decided that wasn’t something it wanted. In places like California, Rampson said, communities have turned to accessory dwellings as one way to increase density.
[At the same meeting in January 2012 when the planning commission recommended approval of the 618 S. Main project, they also authorized a special exception use at 3645 Waldenwood, to allow an accessory apartment to be added to the single-family house there. According to planning staff, it was only the second time a special exception use had been requested for an accessory unit since the accessory dwelling ordinance was crafted in the early 1980s. The effort that Rampson mentioned would have changed the city's zoning to make it possible for non-family members to live in accessory apartments.]
Commenting at the end of the Q&A session, Rita Mitchell noted that a four-party agreement is now being discussed that could lead to a countywide transportation system. [Action on four-party agreement – between the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority, Washtenaw County, and the cities of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti – has been postponed three times by the Ann Arbor city council, most recently at its Feb. 6, 2012 meeting.] Mitchell suggested that AATA should improve its existing routes and make service truly excellent, saying it would be a draw for people and would provide environmental benefits as well.
Rampson noted that transit ridership has increased. The AATA recently started more frequent service on Route #4 between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, she said, which is already showing increased ridership. Eli Cooper added that increased service requires increased resources. Part of the proposed countywide plan calls for enhancing services in the core population areas, as well as better connecting communities within the county, he said.
Questions & Comments: Noise
Question: Ann Arbor is surrounded by freeways. I live by M-14 and there’s nothing but noise. There should be some thought given to creating a buffer – berms, or trees – because noise has a big impact on quality of life.
Susan Pollay said she didn’t have an answer, but a comment. A few years ago, when M-14 was shut down for construction, it was incredibly quiet. It was remarkable not to have that freeway sound – she hadn’t previously been aware that it was such a constant background noise.
Eli Cooper noted that building noise barriers or berms is prohibitively expensive, and yields a limited effect. He agreed that noise affects the quality of life for residents. That’s why it’s important to encourage quieter modes of transportation, like walking, bicycling, or using hybrid buses.
Questions & Comments: Local vs. State Policy
Question: To what extent are people thinking about the future, with regard to resisting certain tendencies? For example, the University of Michigan isn’t accountable to the residents of Ann Arbor. The state is also doing things that residents don’t want – like allowing companies to shoot movies in the city. There’s nothing sustainable about that. The city should have its own policies.
Eli Cooper replied that in order to be successful, the city needs to align its policies with entities around it. Being sustainable within the city’s boundaries is one thing, he said, but it’s also important to consider sustainability in a broader context. And it’s important for the city to coordinate and work well with higher forms of government, like the county and the state.
Two more forums in this sustainability series are planned. All forums will be held at the downtown Ann Arbor District Library building, 343 S. Fifth Ave. starting at 7 p.m.
- March 8, 2012: Climate and Energy – including an overview of Ann Arbor’s climate action plan, climate impacts, renewable and alternative energy, energy efficiency and conservation.
- April 12, 2012: Community – including housing, public safety, public art, recreation, outreach, civic engagement, and stewardship of community resources.
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