Monday, August 01, 2005

Proto Campaign Platform, Take 2

Historic Preservation

We should pledge that we will never knock down another residential building in Ann Arbor. I am involved in preservation and recognize the importance of maintaining the designs and materials of days past. I think they are generally superior to what we have put out in the post WWII era. That goes for residential and commercial and industrial. In nearly every thriving city, the area that is the most vibrant retains the form of days past. Preservation has become an engine of urban revitalization.

HOWEVER, in a fortunate few cities like Ann Arbor, that revitalization and vibrancy means that demand outstrips supply of urban land and space. The result is an upward spiral of real estate costs and decreasing affordability. Homes for less than $200,000 in the city of Ann Arbor are the exception rather than the rule. This is not sustainable, as the cost of a home should be about 2-2.5x the annual income of the family or household. This means that a couple would have to earn 80-100k a year to be able to afford a house that they want to stay in. That may be fine for lawyers, physicians, and even some engineers, but for most of the middle class, the only option is to live out in the townships. BTW, you should see the real estate fiasco in historic Chestertown, MD, I saw over the weekend. Houses go for anywhere from $300 to $600 a square foot (and, because of a robust land conservancy initiative there, there were NO OPTIONS anywhere outside the town [unless it was 30+ miles away]). It was simply unaffordable to live there.

How to reconcile preservation with the much-needed increase of the building supply? Moving the structures. Take the two houses that fell victim to the Glen Ann development. The space was incredibly underutilized, so I don't fault the new development. However, it was decided not to force the developer to pay to move the houses to some other lots in town. What should have happened was that the developer paid the million dollars to the Ann Arbor Housing Trust Fund, then either sold the houses for a dollar each or donated them to a non-profit developer. Really, it's no skin off their nose. Either they get two bucks and some good will, or they get a decent tax break, as the houses (without lots) would probably be worth a 100k each. The non-profit developer then would pay to have these homes moved either somewhere in town or on the outskirts, and at, say, 30k each to move, plus 25k for a lot and foundation, we have 2 new affordable units in town (plus all the money from the developer's "in lieu of" payment for future projects). "Win-win," they call it. In fact, moving structures is an historic housing strategy that got lost in the 20th century availability of cheap new construction.

Another bonus, while we're on the topic of density and affordability, is to change zoning in residential areas so that existing suburban plats within the city can see greater density (with these moved structures, perhaps). Another challenge to density and affordability is the perception that Ann Arbor is "built out." This is not the case. In fact, Ann Arbor has a CRAPLOAD of green space -- on nearly every single residential lot. First, what we must do is rewrite the zoning and covenants of our urban residential developments so that we can fill in this space. No more restrictions of 30 feet on each side of the house to the lot line. Then, we can reconfigure the lots -- say you buy 2 side by side lots and then slice some land off each lot where they meet to make a third lot -- to accommodate moved structures and greater density. To make considerations for fire hazards, let's stagger the houses so that they're not in a single line, but the third house is farther back from its neighbors, reducing the chance that a fire in one could jump to the next (part of the reason for the institution of side setbacks). Let me research how this last brainstorm might be practically achieved and update in a bit.

NOTE: Edited to clarify "residential" buildings in the first paragraph. Also, as Murph notes in the comments, it sounds like I'm blaming the developer for the loss of the two houses at Glen-Ann. I don't mean to; rather, I'm lamenting the whole process. As I hear it, the developer said, "you can either have a million dollars for the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, or I'll move the houses and you can have half a million dollars." The city chose the former, which was wise, but the relocation of the houses is also an important measure.


Anonymous Scott T. said...

"We should pledge that we will never knock down another building in Ann Arbor."

Holy crap, that's extreme. There are a lot of great buildings that might be worth saving, as you describe... but there are plenty of buildings that really ought to just be knocked down eventually. All those little one story boxes on South U? Do you really want to relocate those? Are you MAD? Knock those suckers down and build something bigger, I say.

4:41 PM  
Blogger accidentalactivist said...

Part of the update will of course be adding the qualifiers that some buildings are impossible to relocate (brick and block) and others can't structurally stand it, but anyone (I) should make the statement that we're not just the "knock it down" kind of people. Maybe just adding the word "viable" will do.

5:57 PM  
Anonymous Murph said...

I don't think the failure of the Glen-Ann houses to be moved is the developer's fault or the city's, but reflects the state of affordable housing entities in the city.

I and the gen'l manager of the ICC met with a University VP and two Administrators (I still have no idea how we swung that crowd) last summer to discuss a parking lot lease. Part of that conversation involved them saying,

"Oh, and, as long as we have you here, we hear you had a house burn down recently, and now have an empty lot. We're looking to expand one of our parking structures, and will have to knock down a couple of houses to do it. Do you want one of those houses to put on your lot? We'll give it to you for $10. Please? It would make the historic preservation types around town very happy if we actually found a way to save one of these houses."

Apparently they've tried to give away dozens of historic houses in the past, and have _never_ found a taker. (The ICC considered it, but we declined because the house they were offering would only hold about 7 or 8 co-opers, and that wasn't what we were looking for.)

If the historic preservation types and the affordable housing types want to save the houses, they/you/we need to actually go and do it. Just think - if a certain Avalon Housing board member had taken all the time she's spent fighting the 3-site plan and instead spent that time researching moving historic houses to new sites, how many affordable units could have been saved?

11:48 PM  
Anonymous KGS said...

"We should pledge that we will never knock down another residential building in Ann Arbor."

I agree with Scott - this is way too extreme. There are some houses, even ones constructed before WWII, that may not be worth saving. What would be ideal is to move the houses (obviously preferred) or build new housing units that double the amount of housing available. So if a house is torn down, the developer has to build double the units that were in it. Two units, if it was a single family residence; 4 units if it was a duplex, and so on.

"In nearly every thriving city, the area that is the most vibrant retains the form of days past."

I disagree. There are some areas that are vibrant and thriving in Ann Arbor - the Stadium and Washtenaw corridors, for example - that have non-historic buildings, yet they continue to thrive and be commercial centers of the city. The same is no doubt true for other cities. Not *everything* can, or should be, historic. :-)

9:14 AM  
Anonymous Murph said...

kgs - as an off-topic mini-rant, no, not everything can or should be historic (as in, old), but everything can and should be built as if it is expected to someday be historic. I think that's one of the key differences between currently-historic buildings and currently new buildings; the only way most new buildings will be historic is in the sense of, "Jeez, just how long _has_ that total eyesore been around?!"

9:24 AM  
Blogger Brandon said...

Can we knock down all the postwar residential sprawl if we replace it with something better?

Survey says: "Please!"

2:38 PM  

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