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Re: SG-W:/ Where do we go from here?

Where do we go from here?

I co-authored an op-ed column in the Ann Arbor news last Sunday to try to answer this question, with Rick Hills of the U-M law school, that many of you might have seen.  If not the link and text is below.

I wonder if the activists on this list have any thoughts on our general ideas and specific proposals, especially the immediate steps that the city of Ann Arbor can take to pursue sustainable development inside as well as outside the city limits.

We didn't have space in the column to address the most important current need--strong statewide action to empower regional governance including countywide zoning and planning, and ideally an urban growth boundary instead of a sporadic greenbelt, with higher density in Ann Arbor combined with clustered development around the current towns in Washtenaw and an efficient regional system of mass transit.  We are all working under the severe structural limitations to Smart Growth in this state.  Ann Arbor cannot solve the sprawl problem or the affordable housing crisis acting alone, but the city could do much more to make the situation better and could stop doing things to make it worse.

As the City Council takes up the enabling legislation for the Greenbelt, and hopefully as the accessory apartment proposal makes its way back to the 
municipal agenda, I hope there is grassroots support or at least debate on the zero-loss proposal and higher density zoning requirements that we suggest.


Matt Lassiter



Time to back up greenbelt

City must commit to affordable housing, higher urban density

Sunday, November 16, 2003

The first principle of the Smart Growth movement is that regional problems require regional solutions. Now that Ann Arbor voters have approved the greenbelt proposal, city leaders and local environmentalists must promote the agenda of affordable housing, infill development and higher urban density with as much passion as they have demonstrated in the battle to contain suburban sprawl.

Many of the commuters who are clogging city streets and polluting our air and water are working-class and middle-income people who cannot afford to live in Ann Arbor but nevertheless make up the service economy that in turn 
sustains our lifestyles. Graduate students at U-M are increasingly forced to live outside the city, in locations where rental prices are lower but mass transit is inadequate. Graduate and undergraduate students in the city 
face high rents and tense relations with neighbors in a distorted housing market. Even middle-class professionals are increasingly purchasing homes in the smaller towns outside Ann Arbor because of skyrocketing housing prices within the city.

If Ann Arbor is to continue to deserve its progressive reputation, the City 
Council must adopt a new planning approach that does not allow neighborhood 
opposition to veto sustainable development policies that are in the interests of the community at large. If Ann Arbor is to become Michigan's leader in the Smart Growth movement, a comprehensive commitment to urban density will be necessary to move beyond micro-conflicts between the advocates of infill development and the defenders of "preserving neighborhood character." The intensity of past opposition to affordable housing initiatives and infill development suggests that a genuine Smart Growth program will not be easy to implement. But the public awareness surrounding the greenbelt campaign provides a window of opportunity for action. To demonstrate that Smart Growth in Ann Arbor applies inside as well as outside the city limits, and that social justice is central to the agenda of quality-of-life environmentalism, the City Council should take two immediate steps and then begin a comprehensive restructuring of the zoning code.

First, City Council should promptly authorize the accessory apartment proposal that members unanimously rejected in February 2002. Accessory apartments provide additional housing opportunities for renters (usually graduate students, single professionals and the elderly), as well as supplementary income for middle-class homeowners. In this unfortunate episode, elected officials retreated from a modest plan in response to a misinformed anti-student campaign by neighborhood groups.

The defeat of the accessory apartment proposal represented a classic example of NIMBYism and raised the disturbing possibility that in terms of homeowner politics, few meaningful differences separate the neighborhoods of Ann Arbor from the suburbs of Detroit. The prompt revival of the accessory apartment plan would demonstrate the good faith of city leaders who supported the greenbelt while promising future action on the issue of affordable housing.

Second, City Council should adopt a binding land-use policy that prohibits any net loss of housing opportunities through the acquisition of land for parks or the purchase of development rights for open spaces. For every potential dwelling unit eliminated, the zoning code should be amended to require approval of an equal number of housing units within the city limits. This zero-loss formula would rechannel development inside the city while guaranteeing that the greenbelt initiative will not worsen the affordable housing crisis.

Finally, the City Council should overhaul the zoning code to specify a higher level of urban density for the entire city to promote housing opportunities near the locations where residents work. A policy based on the "fair share" principle would increase affordable housing in all parts of the city without overburdening any particular area. The current "no growth" stance of many single-family neighborhoods could be undercut by a comprehensive, instead of piecemeal, approach. Affordable developments should also supplement high-priced condominiums and townhouses in the downtown region, to minimize automobile usage and maintain a socially diverse urban population.

Right now, Ann Arbor is really a suburb masquerading as a city. Its overall 
residential density is about 3 dwelling units per acre, approximately the same ratio as the sprawling suburbs developed in Michigan during the 1980s and well below the state's first wave of post-1945 suburbs. The zoning code 
should be amended to require a density level of at least 5.5 dwellings per acre, roughly the ratio that existed in Michigan's cities before World War II.

Trying to prevent sprawl on the suburban fringe while maintaining Ann Arbor's low-density residential landscape is incompatible with a sustainable development approach to the metropolitan region. Refusing to accept any changes to the "character of our neighborhoods" is ultimately a short-sighted and self-defeating strategy that will accelerate the quality-of-life decline caused by traffic jams and pollution of the air and 

The passage of the greenbelt must become the catalyst for a comprehensive reorientation of growth policies inside as well as outside the city limits.

Anti-sprawl policies pursued without a good-faith commitment to infill development turn into a form of NIMBYism that exacerbates class segregation 
and socioeconomic inequality. Now that Ann Arbor has begun to address the sprawl crisis on the metropolitan fringe, the city must move to address the 
affordable housing crisis within its own boundaries.

Matthew D. Lassiter is an assistant professor in the History Department at the University of Michigan. Rick M. Hills is a professor in the University of Michigan Law School. News readers can contribute essays of general interest to Other Voices. Please call the editorial page editor at (734) 994-6764.


Matt Lassiter
Assistant Professor
History Department
University of Michigan

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