Wednesday, April 20, 2005

A Force of Nature

I had the good fortune of stepping out of my lame-ass orientation seminar today so that I could go to an MUP round table with Huron Valley Sierra Club president Doug Cowherd. Cowherd came in to talk for an hour (that turned into 2 hours) about the HVSC and the plan for the Ann Arbor Greenway.

Not having had any contact with Cowherd until today, I expected something different from what I got. The bottom line on Cowherd is that he is smooth -- polished to a deep glow, really. Unfortunately, I think that popular characterizations of him, while they simplify his message and position, are mostly accurate. He came onto the planners (6 in the room, plus me, I recall) right off by presenting the HVSC's message as more or less equally valuing urban densification and peripheral greenspace. "Wow," I thought, "isn't this guy on our side?" He then claimed that unavoidable economic forces would bring density to Ann Arbor; his agenda was simply to promote a higher quality of life in the face of this coming development. He went on to say how he/HVSC was in favor of walkable neighborhoods and density and challenged anyone in the room to name a development HVSC had shot down. Of course, no one could name one. An unproductive Dickens Woods example followed, which he fairly skillfully parried.

The thing is, that is not the way these things work. Cowherd pointed out that the HVSC has no staff and has about 4000 members, about 80 of whom are active in their three-county area. He made it seem like the HVSC was the Davidian voice of the people with a little sling shot against the Goliath developers. The reality is much like my own neighborhood association, Old West Side. I am a dues-paying member, and I get about one email a month (if that) from the OWS leadership, along with the Old West Side News. There is nothing going on. However, there is a flurry of communication every time a NIMBY issue (eg the Greenway) comes up, and people who have some identification with the group (perhaps because of the OWS News) jump to action for their team. I suspect it is the same thing with the HVSC. The HVSC doesn't have much of a heirarchy or bureaucracy, but they have a base that Cowherd loves to whip into action when he sees something he doesn't agree with. On one level, it is good -- this is how grassroots activism is supposed to work. However, Cowherd is being disingenuous about his and the HVSC's position and agenda. He whips people into a frenzy, be it the OWS or the OFW or the other three groups he said he had been talking to over the last week or two, and THEY are the ones who jump in front of the cameras and boo at meetings as "accidental activists." And the HVSC's hands are clean.

At this point I interjected that I didn't buy his assumption that densification was inevitable, and in fact the county was expecting its population to increase by about 25 percent in the next two decades, while Ann Arbor was only planning to grow by 2-3 percent. I further went on to say that with such demand for the area, if only 2-3 percent growth were the case, Ann Arbor prices and property values would continue to rise in their current fashion. He challenged me to name a project that had been shot down. I responded North Main condos. He said name another. I responded (incorrectly) 828 Greene. It was an attempted shoot-down, but it passed. He said there were 200 sites downtown that he felt could be sensitively developed to 3-6 times their current density, but chose not to name them. I hit him harder on the "unavoidable densification" point, which he tried to explain away.

Later, when he was promoting a green-spacey, transit-oriented, walkable environment (with photos), I asked him how the buildings in his photos (which he claimed were from the national SC Web site) were different from the Corner House Lofts, which he had opposed, the one project he acknowledged opposing. The were really remarkably similar, from the brick veneer to the green awnings over the sidewalk. He got defensive and said he wasn't an architect, so he couldn't say how they were similar or different. I responded that he had opposed the CH Lofts on their design and detailing and height, not on their structural or material merit; he said CH Lofts weren't sensitive to the historic neighborhood; I said, not to the OFW, you mean? He said, no to the historic State St area; I asked him if the abandoned Olga's building that it replaced was more historically sensitive to the State Street area. He responded that the city should have forced a better design or waited for one. This contradicts his apathy towards zoning, even form-based guidelines, which could have helped improve the design. (BTW, I agree it could have been done better, but it is in fact almost EXACTLY in line with the physical vision he was putting forth using Denver and Oakland as examples).

He then went on to explain how pretty much every official in the city was in bed with developers, from the DDA to the planning commission to the city council. Long story short, he made it seem as though the developers really ran the town. I agree with him in part -- Realtors and developers are too powerful. But I have always thought that, and I don't necessarily think we should demonize developers, as SOMEONE has to do the building that we all want (or claim to want).

Anyway, he was clearly polished and had been through this several time before, and it seem like he had done his homework, because he knew a lot about pretty much every project we talked about. I was a bit surprised, because I think he was the most locally knowledgeable person in the room; the MUP students no doubt only spend a little time on local issues and have to think theoretically, regionally, nationally, even globally, while Cowherd probably spends his free time talking and thinking about the latest Ann Arbor project.

He bashed the media a couple times, saying the AA news, the Observer, and some other print source was also in bed with developers, in that they got advertising from them and he didn't feel that they reported truthfully on him.

We went around and around; the planners tried to talk about zoning as the key and he downplayed its importance, saying the politicians would subvert it anyways. Cowherd lectured us about the evils of sprawl, the subsidies for sprawl, the blah blah blah that seemed to be part of his standard stump speech and was really wasted on us -- preaching to the choir, so to speak. I think he could have gone on for both hours without letting us speak once, so enthusiastic was he to talk.

We eventually addressed the Greenway, which in his vision was a connected greenspace that, with the DDA's three sites, could be a location for local festivals, walking, biking, etc. I asked how the greenway would work on the railroad tracks, which only have a few feet on either side for "green space." He didn't really address that, saying that we could put up fences, and I think he wanted to say that there was enough on either side to make it functional. I've got to give him points for at least pushing something like this that could potentially be a community asset. However, we disagree on an essential point -- the railroad is no place for a greenway.

He also claimed there was no market for mid-level downtown residences, based on the BDW roundtable from last year (AAiO referred to it 6-24-04, though it's no longer online). I claimed he misinterpreted the article, as the developers were saying you can't develop mid-level (150-200k) residences because land values and built-in costs were so high. There clearly is a demand; you just have to look at a certain way. The reality is that students by and large would rather live in an affordable apartment than an expensive old house. Some would rather live in a house; I would give up my front porch if I could live on William and Fourth with a decent view. The vacancies in the houses would eventually make it more sensible for houses to actually serve as single family residences instead of apartment houses (which they can only do because students more or less have to live near campus and a house can MAKE money if it is rented out, while above a certain point homes are just too expensive for families to buy anymore), meaning houses in the OWS and the OFW would be occupied by families, meaning there is a market for more downtown density -- both renting and owning. I don't think I'm going out on a limb here with this theory.

I certainly wasn't the hero of the discussion, though it may seem like it on this blog; I just remember my own points best. That said, I asked why the HVSC, if urban densification and protection of peripheral green space really were proportional goals, didn't spend as much time promoting its "200 sites" for development vision as it did its greenway vision. He said that, since the HVSC was traditionally a pro-greenspace/endangered species/nature-oriented group, he had to respond to the desires of his constituency -- he was an elected president, after all. This was another disengenuous response, I feel. He leads the organization; he should admit it. If he feels that densification is as important as greenspace, as he implied at the outset of the discussion, or if he feels that it is important, whether or not he puts it on the same level as greenspace, he should demonstrate that by action. He has not; therefore, we can conclude that he does not actually mean it (ie actions speak louder than words). He knew whom he was speaking to and tried to tailor his message to us. I guess it remains to be seen who bought it.

Bottom line, Cowherd is enthusiastic about the Greenway and cynical about city officials. He made himself seem like the one guy in this town sticking up for the little guy (who is actually a yuppy making 100k a year). He must be reckoned with, though I think his vision for Ann Arbor is not the right one. Unfortunately, I think his real agenda regarding downtown and the city is in a zero-sum position with my (and others') vision of densification and fair-share growth.


Anonymous wendyo said...

What about the Bluffs project? Did he have anything to do with that one going down in flames? (Not that it was a great plan).

6:26 PM  
Blogger accidentalactivist said...

Not a mention; I think he'd deny HVSC had anything to do with its opposition anyway.

7:25 PM  
Anonymous KGS said...

Thank you for the description of the meeting. I am glad to see MUP students get more involved with local planning issues; that didn't seem to be the case when I was at the UM.

Unfortunately, I have the same impressions as you when it comes to Cowherd, with the additional bite that he implied that I, too, was in the pocket of developers (which really is not the case at all!). His leadership of the HVSC has kept me from being a member for years; I refuse to support such a bad-mouthing politician as him with my membership funds. I suppose I ought to write the national SC and see if they can do anything, or if I can join without funds going to the HV chapter.

10:39 AM  
Blogger accidentalactivist said...

I think it is a very cynical ploy on his part to cast himself as the servant of the membership, when it really seems that he is the one setting the agenda (looking in particular at their newsletter, featuring him and his significant misrepresentations of the city council's action on the Johnson/Easthope greenway resolution on the front page). I'd wager most members have a vague commitment to environmental issues, but look to the leadership for cues on what are important environmental issues in the area and how to deal with them.

Cowherd made much hay of the mostly uncontested council elections; I'd like to see what kind of fight he had to get elected to be president of HVSC. I think it would illustrate that the grassroots of the organization really respond to the leadership and not the other way around.

11:53 AM  
Anonymous John Q said...

It's a bit ironic that you paint Cowherd as being Ann Arbor-focused (as compared to the planners, who are regionally focused), when he was instrumental in helping pull together the only regional planning effort in the area - the Greenbelt. Whether you agree with the concept or not, there's no doubt that the Greenbelt will benefit the communities surrounding Ann Arbor as it will the City itself.

11:45 PM  
Blogger accidentalactivist said...

John, maybe you should look up irony in the dictionary. It's not ironic to characterize people who regularly consider the interrelationship of all 7 counties in SEMCOG as "regional" in thought. Neither is it ironic to characterize someone as "locally knowledgeable" who has local knowledge.

However, since Cowherd supported (if not drove) the greenbelt millage -- which will end up being more or less worthless, as it is a drop in the bucket and a joke compared to the needed urban growth boundary -- and has done NOTHING to promote density within the "greenbelt," I can confidently characterize him as not only locally-interested, but myopic, as well.

3:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"it is a drop in the bucket and a joke compared to the needed urban growth boundary"

You mean the urban growth boundary that can't exist under Michigan law and that has almost zero chance of ever been implemented, even if it was legal? Oh, OK, well, I guess it's better to support pie-in-the-sky ideals that will never exist than try something that might, possibly, actually work.

1:00 PM  
Blogger accidentalactivist said...

Whether an urban growth boundary will be implemented or not does not change the need.

Maybe 30 million dollars isn't a lot of money to you, but it is to me. And it's only a drop in the bucket of the, say 500 million dollars (or is it a billion?) needed to purchase and assemble anything resembling an actual "greenbelt." around Ann Arbor. The greenbelt will have no effect on sprawl and will tie up 30 million dollars over 30 years that could be spent on something more ANYTHING.

Finally, and most fundamentally, we should not be discouraging growth in the townships by precluding development. The reality is that these areas will eventually require development and we should work to help manage it. More sensible ways (though more difficult to effect) would be through mass transit systems and, ideally, a growth boundary. More easily effected strategies would include downzoning.

I am not afraid of entertaining ideals; without them, our actions and policies are directionless and meaningless. Unless we're motivated by homeowner politics; that will trump all.

11:45 PM  

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