Thursday, December 23, 2004

Mr. Mayor, WTF?

An exchange between me and Mayor John Hieftje (sounds sort of like "heaved-ya"):

Dear Mr. Mayor --

I am a new resident of Ann Arbor living in the fifth ward. This summer and fall I have been following in several print and online publications what seems to be an ongoing conflict between the permanent population and the student population. While the proposed couch ban is the most prominent example of this tension, denied and delayed proposed developments targeted at increasing density (and serving the student population) are examples of perhaps more important instances of this ongoing opposition between town and gown.

That there is some animosity between homeowners and the student population needs no further argument; it is clear to anyone who lives in the city. I am interested in ways of solving this problem. The 2000 US census indicates that more than half the units in the city are rentals and more than a third of the population is between 20 and 34. This, of course, would indicate that anywhere between a fifth and a third of the city's population is made up of students.

My question to you, Mr. Mayor, is why, despite the prominent and enduring interest of students in the city's development (as a group they are always here and are getting proportionally larger as city growth stagnates and UM enrollment swells), are there no students or student advocates on the city's planning commission? Students certainly represent an important group "having an interest in the growth and development of the city," as the planning commission's bylaws state.

Does it not seem reasonable to appoint, in your capacity as mayor, a student interested in the city's growth and development to the next vacancy to the commission? The education and experience that graduate students (some of whom have a great deal of experience in community development), senior undergrads, or student advocates offer could only serve to promote dialogue between thegroups. (I remind you that graduate students in particular are frequently persons of rather long-term residence in Ann Arbor during the course of their degree programs). Such dialogue can only bring students and landowners together in promoting a common vision for the future of the city.

I think it has been and will continue to be a major challenge for your administration to deal with these tensions and I strongly urge you to consider appointing someone with student interests in mind to the next commission vacancy.
Dale Winling
106 W. Madison
Ann Arbor


Hello: Thank you for writing on this issue.

You are correct, there has been friction between neighborhood associations and students on certain issues for as long as anyone can remember. As a long time resident and observer I believe it is probably less intense now than it has been in the past. From what I have seen it occurs in every city that is home to a major university.

Nearly every time I speak to student organizations I make a point of letting them know that the city has over 50 boards and commissions and yet, I get very few, if any applications. The "Cool Cities" task force is one exception, several students applied last year and they were appointed however, some have already left. Outside of the cool cities task force I believe the problem has to do with the fact that most boards appointments are for 3 or 4 years and they meet year round. In the case of the planning commission they meet nearly every Tuesday night and there are sub-committees. This probably keeps undergrads from applying.

I have appointed graduate students to the planning commission. In fact a graduate student enrolled in a joint program with the Schools of Natural Resources and Public Policy just came off the planning commission. I would be happy to appoint another qualified graduate student at some point. At present, I do not believe there is one in the file. Last week I did meet with someone who just graduated and who is interested in a future appointment.

Let me also note that graduate students have been involved in policy making positions in city government at least as far back the 1980's and one served two terms on City Council in the late 1990's.

A couple of other points that I may be able to clear up: The city of Ann Arbor is certainly not "stagnated," it is one of only two of the larger cities in Michigan that is adding permanent residents and it has a growing tax base. It has the most vibrant economy and the lowest unemployment in the state.

Over a year ago I created and appointed a task force to look at how the city might increase density in the downtown area and the city is in the process of working through the plan recommended by the task force. I am not sure what developments you might be referring to that have been delayed or denied but we have approved a 900 bed privately owned residence facility adjacent to North Campus that has been held up by the University. This will contain 125 beds that will meet affordable housing criteria.

When it comes to housing, the University is by far the greatest contributor to any shortages that may occur from time to time in Ann Arbor. The last university owned residence hall was completed in 1968 and yet thousands of students have been added since then. Even the recently announced plans for a residence hall on State will not contribute "new" housing to the city as it will be used to house students while existing halls are remodeled over the next 12 years. Private developers have made it known that they will build and run residence halls with no capitol expense to the University. They only need land to build on and they will pay the University for the Real Estate. Unlike the private sector in the city, the University has an abundance of land.

The "proposed couch ban" came out of the Fire Department, it was not proposed by Council. I am not now nor have I been a proponent of regulating porch furniture.

I certainly agree that students make up a vital and important segment of the population in Ann Arbor and they contribute greatly to lifein our city. Ann Arbor continues to win awards as one of the great places to live in the U.S. and I am certain that this would not be so were it not for the presence of the University and all it brings to our community, including of course the contribution to the public dialog made by students.

Thank you again for writing and for your interest in these issues.

John Hieftje
Dear Mr. Mayor,

Thank you for your response.

First, let me suggest Richard Murphy for consideration for the next vacancy on the planning commission. Richard is a graduate student in urban planning and is a thoughtful and committed advocate on urban issues. He can be reached at Please also consider me for future vacancies on the historic preservation commission. I am a graduate student in architectural history at the university and I can provide any other needed information upon request.

On the issue of the city's growth, it does not seem to be prepared for (or perhaps even willing to take on) its share of the 25+% population growth the county is anticipating by 2020. However, I was at the Edison Center to hear the residential task force's report and was pleased with the recommendations. I would find the city's prospects for harmonious growth much better with a student advocate on the planning commission. Finally, two notes: I was referring to the proposed 828 Greene development and the North Main condos as dense/student projects that have been shot down recently. Also, I don't think the university is under any obligation to house students except as part of its educational mission. Simply assuming the burden of NIMBY neighborhoods is no reason to invest millions of dollars in a project. This is, of course, a matter for debate.

Thank you and good day.
Dale Winling


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