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Re: SG-W:/ Where do we go from here?
I don't disagree with some of your points but I think in trying to
establish general principles, the editorial overly simplifies the impact
of these policies.
The thrust of the editorial is that not only should Ann Arbor become more
dense but that density should be spread throughout the City. As you
correctly point out, much of Ann Arbor is developed at densities closer
to what is seen in suburban communities as opposed to urban communities.
However, by advocating a blanket density citywide, you put the cart before
the horse. The first question that needs to be answered is "what is a
sustainable level of development?"
We know that urban areas can be incredibly dense. All of the major cities
of the world have densities far greater than anything we will ever see in
Ann Arbor. A good comparison I like to use is the City of San Francisco.
It has a population of around 800,000 in an area slightly larger than your
typical Michigan township. However, just because we can build to such
densities doesn't mean that those densities are sustainable. We can't
simply set density levels and assume that the infrastructure is available
to support it. At the most basic levels, I would want to know if the City
has the water, sewer and stormwater capacity to support higher density as
is proposed. If the capacity doesn't exist to support higher densities,
what would be the cost and the feasability of supporting more growth. We
are much more cognizent of things like stormwater runoff that older urban
areas never planned to accomodate. Do we want to treat stormwater like
they do in NYC - dumping it untreated into the nearest river?
I also found the attitude towards neighborhood opposition to be
simplistic. Are there places where more development and infill development
could be accomodated? Absolutely. But a healthy city needs to have a
diversity of housing types. That means that creating and maintaining
low-density residential neighborhoods. How many of us have driven past the
ugly block apartment buildings that were inflicted on established
neighborhoods like the Old West Side and wondered how any one could think
that benefited the City. Yet, in the name of "Smart Growth", one could
argue that these builings were exactly what the City needed. Instead, I
would argue that any new developments in these areas need to respect the
characters of these areas. That doesn't mean that only single family
infill should be allowed. But we need to do better than what has been done
in the past. We also need to recognize that having a diversity of housing
types means that there will be areas of the city where we don't try and
jam in as many homes as is possible.
I think we have to look at a much bigger picture than just the
City of Ann Arbor. The idea that all growth in Washtenaw County can or
should be accomodated within the City is unrealistic and unhealthy. As
I've mentioned here before, I think we need to look at the regional ideas
advocated by people like Peter Calthorpe:
Calthorpe realizes, correctly in my view, that a single urban area can
only accomodate so much growth. When growth projections are going to
exceed the ability of that area to accomodate the growth, we need to look
at other existing urban areas to accomodate that growth or develop new
"town centers" to be the focus of future growth. Calthorpe also realizes
that without farmland preservation, sprawl will eventually infill the
areas between the urban areas, eliminating the character of each
individual area. We are already seeing this in Washtenaw county as the
lack of preserved farmland around Ann Arbor is blurring the boundaries of
the City. From the east, sprawl in Canton Township and Wayne County is
threatening to spill over into Washtenaw County, turning Ann Arbor into
another Detroit suburb. We need a vision that sees places like Superior,
Salem and Ann Arbor Townships maintained in largely agricultural and rural
residential development to maintain that buffer and control where growth
I also think it oversimplifies the affordable housing discussion to imply
that more density is the solution. My experience is that land prices are
the primary determinent of housing. In a highly desirable city where
vacant land is in extremely limited supply, basic supply and demand is
going to drive up the costs of any new housing as well as existing
housing. Absent some kind of price control, even homes initially
constructed as affordable will jump in price to match the demands of the
market. Increasing density just leads to more homes that exceed the
ability of many people to afford them. I doubt that the city will ever be
able to increase density to the point that it would accomodate the demands
of the market that it would make housing affordable.
Despite my counter points, these are good points that you are raising. I
do think they need to be discussed as part of the debate about smart
growth. I also hope that it opens up discussions about how more
development can be supported in a sustainable way. That means discussing
transit, affordable housing, building heights and all of those other
issues that are tied into developing a city. It should be interesting!
On Sat, 22 Nov 2003, Matt Lassiter wrote:
> 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
> BY MATTHEW D. LASSITER AND RICK M. HILLS
> 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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