Monday, December 05, 2005

Get Out Your Schedules

I will be teaching a course in Historic Preservation and Urban Conservation during the spring semester. As I have said elsewhere a number of times, I lament that in Ann Arbor, urban planners and historic preservationists are so frequently at odds. In my mind, preservationists ARE urbanists -- people committed to vibrant city life, friendly neighborhoods, and diverse social networks interacting within the built environment. I expect to incorporate several presentations from local preservation, research and planning figures, and to have some really interesting end-of-semester projects that students can choose from. My main target audiences will be students in the college of architecture and urban planning, as well as undergrads in history, landscape architecture, and even anthropology and sociology -- those whose work engages the built environment and urban settings. I will, of course, be considering input any readers might have, so feel free to rock the comments.


Blogger Brandon said...

"Don't Shade My Backyard."

12:43 AM  
Blogger accidentalactivist said...

"The past has a voice, not a veto."

1:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hope you address external issues such as strength of the local economy and quality of local school districts that serve to drive housing markets up or down, as well as acknowledge the reality that since a home is likely the single most important asset that most people may ever own, resistance from pre-existing homeowners to any changes that are perceived to lower property values is not only expected, but an economically rational response.

11:35 PM  
Blogger PB said...

If I get in at the UM Planning program, you can bet I'll take you course next spring, if you offer it again. Cough, help, cough!

1:31 PM  
Blogger accidentalactivist said...

It's an interesting suggestion, anon. Planners frequently admit that, as much as they bring to the improvement of cities, they don't have much leverage in what may be the most important attraction to particular locations -- schools.

I'm not sure that this falls within the purview of the course, except perhaps as a one-off discussion on, say, allied concerns and considerations to developing a project. I think these topics are also covered in some other urban planning courses.

What makes you bring it up regarding an historic preservation course? Do you live around preservation projects that have egregiously ignored their context? Or do you think this is not generally dealt with in planning?

3:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not formally versed in urban planning, but when I follow the various local blogs that deal with urban planning issues, the major recurrent topics seem to be increased density, building heights, parking downtown, greenway downtown, and mixed-use buildings. School districts are never brought up, and it seems like the plans that are discussed are better suited to a relatively younger single person or married couple without children, who want to live within walking distance to a complete and vibrant downtown, where presumably their job is as well. I don't think that is the typical profile of most people who consider moving to and buying a house in Ann Arbor. I also don't think that rigorous historical preservation is a great idea. Look at Northville. The grand old Victorian houses are going for over 1 million dollars, with others of smaller size well over $500,000. Most people end up living in the township, not the village, and largely because of the perceived quality of the schools, I don't think they mind. I actually think a mix of the old and new is much more interesting than all old or all new. When I think urban, I think of Manhattan and downtown Chicago, with high density and a mix of old and new buildings. Although downtown Ann Arbor might be urban in a small town sense, I don't the consider the residential areas more than about 1 mile from the downtown/university area any more urban than the newer subdivisions in Pittsfield and Scio townships. This includes some of the designated historic districts. Maybe you should call the course "Historical Preservation and Residential Conservation," as part of the "urban" experience, at least in my mind, is constant change and renewal.

1:01 PM  
Blogger accidentalactivist said...

I definitely agree with you on the last point and I think it gets to the heart of preservation. Preservation is about making evaluations about what is good and even irreplaceable in communities and doing what we can to reconcile that with current needs. Sometimes old buildings have to go or to be moved, or to be substantially expanded.

Neighborhoods like the Old West Side are different than the townships in a couple ways -- first, they are within walking distance of an urban area. It wouldn't hurt my feelings if the Madison House were eventually redeveloped, but it would be a community loss if NO neighborhood were within walking distance of a grocery store or pub.

The most relevant applications of preservation (and not adaptive reuse) are in revitalization efforts, where people might be drawn back to downtowns (large or small) or where something is in no danger of redevelopment and just suffers from decay. At WMU, my previous university, the original university buildings from 1905-1911 have been neglected for years as the campus expanded away from them. This,in my mind, is just tragic because they are gorgeous buildings in a great location and, if restored and adapted, they could invigorate that area of campus and make a great connection to the rest of the city (which is why they were built there in the first place). (Photos at That complex is begging to be preserved. The same goes for the old paper mills recently demolished along the river in Kalamazoo. There were preservation firms BEGGING to clean up those sites and redevelop them into lofts/live-work.

On the topic of Ann Arbor's downtown, there are a lot of pressures and opportunities to make the downtown into a more traditional urban center -- more blocks of activity, taller buildings, more people. I am sure there is the demand for it; those financiers, developers, and potential residents don't live and vote in Ann Arbor, however (except students, who WOULD live in Ann Arbor after graduation if it were more urban, but who mostly DON'T vote while they're here to help facilitate that transition), so people block new development.

In the Citizens Advisory Council (giving input to the DDA) we talk about how to make downtown more kid-friendly and more liveable for families, but urban planners by and large are talking about groups with the greatest unmet desire for urban life, 20-somethings and empty-nesters. I think there's unmet desire in families for urban living, as well, but it's not as great as the former groups.

6:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I guess we have different definitions of what is walking distance. I chose one mile from downtown as an arbitrary humber based on my experience living in Manhattan. This gave me a twenty block radius both uptown and downtown, and anything over that I would use the subway, bus or cab. A twenty minute walk just to get to a decent restaurant or store is a little too much for me, much less my two young kids.

Maybe one reason a student would stay in Ann Arbor if the downtown were more "urban", but that would be predicated on getting an "acceptable" job in the area. Granted, "acceptable" means different things for different circumstances, but there should be at least some opportunity to get into a better situation than whatever is first offered. I would place priority on economic development to draw younger people to the area, and once there are enough of a certain demographic, I think the market will take care of them. Urban planning seems to imply a lot of anticipation, which is good in periods of economic stability (or stagnation, as the case may be), but in the long term, economic resiliency seems necessary to sustain the vitality of any city.

The two groups you mentioned with the greatest unmet desire for urban life, aside from this desire, seem to me to have little else in common. Really, the empty-nesters with their disposable income and potential spending power if they sell their current residence, are already provided for in downtown Ann Arbor. I think that this group is the target audience for Libery Lofts and Ashley Mews. For any given housing unit, I bet they would readily outcompete the 20-somethings in the market if they wanted to. At the same time, I find it hard to justify some sort of housing subsidy for these 20-somethings when there are others in much more dire economic straits. I don't really know what a useful and acceptable planned solution to this conflict would be. Maybe that's why the student ghettoes exist, because it's the only way for a 20-something to live close to downtown Ann Arbor in conditions that would be tolerable to him/her that would be clearly unacceptable to an older and wealthy empty-nester. Any nicer, and the empty-nester will want that unit and outbid the student. It's sort of like the situation where a student outbids a low-income wage earner for the same unit because the student's expected future income is much greater and thus they are willing to accept some measure of temporary debt.

10:16 PM  
Blogger accidentalactivist said...

I think there's a decent job base in Ann Arbor already; there's in fact a net commute into town every weekday, indicating that there are more jobs in the city than residences for the workers. It could certainly be expanded, but these post-grads are essential for that, in my mind -- both for the workforce and the startups. So it's not just anticipation, in my mind, but meeting existing demand and providing for anticipated demand.

Liberty Lofts, LoFT322, Ashley Mews, etc., seem to be tailored not just to the empty nester, but the wealthy empty nester at 300k+. There is also a demand at the middle class level (200-250k). Further down the scale, young professionals don't need 1200 or 1500 square feet; they can probably get along with 600. Demand for that type of unit, whether rental or condo, is also largely unmet in the city, and could be fairly affordable (say less than 200k) at market rates and would be small enough and stripped-down enough that they wouldn't appeal to the older set. The Collegian is going after this market, with three new floors of residential units proposed. I wish Liberty Lofts and Broadway Village would go this route, too.

Maybe we could bring this back to preservation and schools -- by all accounts, Community High is an incredibly popular and successful city school. If we had a comparable middle school, say, in some adapted old building, do you think that might draw some families into downtown living, who could have 6 years of good, local education blocks from their house?

10:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you need to define what you mean by "downtown". Would that include the neighborhoods immediately adjacent to the business and university districts? Anyway, it's really the elementary schools that parents are looking for when buying a house. And already, Eberwhite, Bach, Burns Park, and Angell are close to downtown. Even though the closest junior high is Slauson, I think it's accepted that most kids will be bused to junior high and high school, so that putting in another junior high even more centrally won't make a substantial difference. The problem with downtownliving isn't that families don't want to live there, it's that the housing prices are pretty high for what families want. Not too many families will settle for a 3 bedroom house if they can avoid it. Downtown walkability isn't really high on their list. Evidence of this is already present in the Ann Arbor school district. The student census in Burns Park and Angell have fallen in the recent years, while Lakewood, which was shuttered due a lack of students, has reopened to handle the increased number of younger children on the western outskirts of Ann Arbor.

12:18 PM  
Blogger accidentalactivist said...

On the move towards population in more distant districts, I think it's important to note that people have not had the option to live nearer downtown. Burns Park hasn't been adding any more units and their household sizes have been decreasing as the owners/families have been getting older (kids moving out). Literally, aging homeowner families have been squeezing young families out.

Where are the 200k units/houses for families who want to live in downtown or downtown adjacent areas? They don't exist, and thus they are not being bought and filled. A planning professor at Michigan has studied housing preferences in both Boston and Atlanta, as well as studying housing options in each city. Housing preferences in the two cities were surprisingly similar -- a mix of low density, medium density, and high density forms, types, and ownership structures. However, in Atlanta these preferences are not being fulfilled because zoning regulations, land use, and financing systems preclude dense development -- despite there being a market for it. The same thing happens in Ann Arbor. People who own houses are so committed to their own version of the American Dream they are unwilling to believe other people want something different.

"Downtown," of course, has multiple meanings and strictly speaking it means within the DDA boundaries. However, most times I use it, as Calthorpe does, to mean those areas and the adjacent-to-downtown areas within a few blocks, as well. I don't have a map, but I would think of it as about 3 or 4 blocks from any downtown boundary.

8:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree that there are no 200k units/houses in downtown Ann Arbor that families might want. In fact, there are very few 200k units for families anywhere in Ann Arbor. By that I mean at least 3 bedrooms, condos and townhouses included. You seem to be conflating affordability and availability when you bring up Boston as an example where mixed-density housing exists. How many 200k units are available for families who want to live in downtown Boston, as compared to the demand for those units to exist? On the other hand, there are several 1 bedroom and 2 bedroom condos available within Ann Arbor, albeit not in the downtown area. The vacancy rate for the apartments in the area is also pretty high. Aside from location, these units seem to fit your criteria as adequate for a young professional. It seems clear that the reason that they are empty is that either the location (not in downtown Ann Arbor) is the issue, or that they truly aren't well suited for the majority of people who work in Ann Arbor because of the nature of the unit. You might favor the former. I think the latter is more likely.

I don't feel that the "build it and they will come" strategy is the best way to go about approaching this problem. Either they won't come, because the downtown infrastructure is not set up for easy residential living (no grocery store, everything closes at 6, etc., etc.) or they'll come in much more numbers than anticipated, in which case affordable for the lucky few first residents is no longer affordable for subsequent potential residents. I say let the high end retail come in, let the high end residents come in. At some point, other businesses will join in, and the lively downtown atmosphere will induce the high end residents to want to stay close to home for other things as well. Once they get in a grocery store and maybe a large chain discount store, then the infrastructure will be in place for more modest units aimed at a lower price point resident who is willing to give up a little space to be in a really cool downtown that they could actually live in. I wouldn't worry about downtown Ann Arbor being overly gentrified. There are only so many wealthy people who would want to live in an apartment in downtown Ann Arbor, no matter how cool the city becomes. After all, if real urban is what they want, Chicago is only four hours away.

9:30 PM  
Blogger accidentalactivist said...

I might agree with your downtown development strategy if there were not forces actively trying to thwart the arrival of more downtown retail, more downtown residential, and any expansion of the "urbanized" area of downtown ever. If they succeed, we will only EVER see the wealthy living in Ann Arbor (except students and the occasional immigrant family cramming 6 into a 2 br unit).

Allston, a Boston neighborhood with much the same urban form as downtown (and adjacent) Ann Arbor except a little taller and having the T, has 600 sq ft units available for 200k. These are not detached units, but as I have noted not everyone WANTS a house in the suburbs.

8:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

While those units may exist in Allston, I don't think there are a whole lot of them, compared to the number of people wanting to live in those units. Anyhow, Allston isn't Boston, in the same way that Ypsilanti isn't Ann Arbor. I disagree with the motives of thos trying to prevent more development in the downtown area, and in this sense we are in agreement. As the draw for Ann Arbor for mosst "non-downtown" residents seems to be a markedly superior school district, maybe the ultimate solution is to decrease such differences between the Ann Arbor and the adjacent school districts. I could see a migration of residents eastward if, let's say, the Ypsilanti school district were perceived as being the equivalent of the Ann Arbor school district. Then price pressures in Ann Arbor would decrease (and those in Ypsilanti increase). One way would be to increase funding somehow to remediate problems in neighboring school districts (the "Democratic" way). The alternative would be to defund and degrade the Ann Arbor school district to be the same as all the others (the "Republican" way). Neither solution seems to be within the immediate scope of urban planning.

9:44 PM  
Blogger accidentalactivist said...

While Ann Arbor has good schools, so do, by all accounts, Saline, Dexter, Chelsea, etc. Ann Arbor has more than schools going for it -- it does have a decent economy enabled and aided in large part by the University.

4:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

True, the adjacent school districts are not "bad", but the Ann Arbor school district must have some perceived value, because if you go to the very edges of the school district, where the distance to Ann Arbor city is essentially the same as the houses across the boundary in the adjacent school districts, you'll see a 15-20% premium being placed on the houses on the Ann Arbor side, all other things being equal. The Ann Arbor mailing address also holds some lesser value, even if you end up being in the Saline, Dexter, or Milan school districts.

I would also consider the University and the University Health system as two separate entities, as the missions of each are substantially different, although they are affiliated in name.

5:51 PM  
Blogger accidentalactivist said...

I'm less inclined to draw a bright line between the university and the health system. We all remember, of course, when Bollinger raided their funds to start the Life Sciences Institute and the university is the one developing facilities for the hospital (auxiliary or otherwise). There would be no UHS without the U. (Why would you want to separate them -- I don't see what that rhetorically does.)

A 20% premium? I'm incredibly skeptical of that estimate -- can you point to some realty listings?

Back to a couple posts ago -- Allston is Boston. It's like Kerrytown to Ann Arbor.

I'm not trying to be overly oppositional, however. Let me just reiterate my two main general points -- there is still a pretty significant demand to live in Ann Arbor and in downtown or adjacent areas (at lower prices and for smaller units than we're seeing, especially) and a good solution is to try to satisfy that demand by increased development in a way that is sensitive to the existing buildings and landscape.

9:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Agreed, but how are we going to get to the point where that development would take place?

10:13 PM  
Blogger accidentalactivist said...

I think the Calthorpe recommendations are a good start. They call for pretty reasonable development on underutilized downtown sites. If there is a weakness to the Calthorpe process and recommendations, I think it is that they were only asked to look at downtown when -- as we have said -- these aren't just downtown issues. I think affordability is a citywide issue and -- keeping in mind the draw of the schools, as you argue -- must be proactively addressed if we want to minimize sprawl and keep demand for the city robust and city services solvent.

Were you able to participate in the workshops or keep apprised of the proceedings? (I ask because I'd like to know your thoughts on the whole project as well as the individual workshops.)

11:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I didn't participate, but my impresssion based on my reading of the paper and various blogs is that the workshops ended up being polarized between parks versus highrises. I don't think we need more parks in Ann Arbor. We need more businesses. And to support those businesses, we need more residences. While I think the Calthorpe recommendations are reasonable, apparently my frame of reference would be considered ignorant from those opposed to the recommendations. Still, I'm not sure how housing units initially priced as "affordable" will remain affordable as the draw to live in Ann Arbor continues to increase.

1:17 PM  
Blogger accidentalactivist said...

On Calthorpe, I don't think they are perfect -- they are general guidelines for managing growth -- but I think their value is in DOING SOMETHING to keep what we like about Ann Arbor. Todd Leopold is always saying that if Ann Arbor chooses to do nothing (or try to stop anything from happening), we will LOSE what we want to KEEP about Ann Arbor.

I think there are a number of strategies for creating diverse housing options downtown, few of which need to be subsidized (what people frequently mean by "affordable," though my use is somewhat different).

An important strategy that has been underutilized, I think, is to build some smaller units. Not only are the units more reasonable at market rates (ie the 600 sq ft 200k units), they appeal to a smaller segment of the population. If all we create are 1200 sq ft units with granite countertops, we are going to get the One North Main types competing with the young professionals and, as you rightly noted, the richies will win and price out the kids. However, if we have some modest 600sq ft units downtown AND some larger, posher units, you won't get this bidding war. The young professionals will stick to the smaller units (say, along Ashley or First or South U. or at Main and Madison) and the tech execs will stick to the 3/4 million dollar condos on Main St. and Huron. In my mind, there are different niches to the market that we have been ignoring.

Also, the idea of satellite or neighborhood centers is another option to deal with demand. We need to Calthorpe the whole city so that people who don't necessarily live or work in the downtown area can still get some walkability and urbanity. Rezoning the non-downtown areas will help redirect development and demand from being exclusively downtown. Thus, if you want a single family residence that's within walking distance of a cafe or bookstore, the Old West Side or Kerrytown would not be your only options.

In my mind, the goal is creating options that we don't have now -- we don't need to turn the whole city into downtown, but we can create some downtown-style options -- working to reconcile demand with existing neighborhoods to aid affordability and improve the city. I think this is also a necessary strategy for the continued economic viability of the city government. We have to keep adding value to property within the city in a way that keeps what we like about Ann Arbor (keeps up demand) or the city is going to have to keep cutting back the services we like -- the Huron River greenway, public pools and community centers, etc.

Where do you live and what would you think about a small (say, one-block, two or three story) non-strip-mall complex or set of buildings in your neighborhood that might have a coffee shop, a laundromat, a doctor's office, and a crafts store at ground floor, with apartments above? I know I would love it; would you or your neighbors go for such a thing? (If you live in an area where such a development wouldn't fit, do you think there is some kind of development that might work in your neighborhood?

3:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I live Scio Township just outside of Ann Arbor. We originally wanted to live close to downtown Ann Arbor, but prices, property taxes, and potential maintenance issues on old housing stock made that impractical for what we wanted to spend. Once we regroup financially, I might try another run at something within the city limits. It's a bit ironic, but it sounds like you are describing Scio Town Center on Zeeb off of Jackson, just south of the Burger King and Meijer's.

Doesn't adding value to property mean increasing individual property values, and thus counter affordability? Also, don't the Headlee Amendment and Proposal A effectively limit the benefit that the city and school district may gain from an increase in property values?

8:32 PM  
Blogger accidentalactivist said...

Adding value to a property can also make it more affordable, particularly if the improvement is in the direction of greater density. For a basic example, a single house on a lot valued at $250,000 has x cost per unit and y tax revenue to the city. A new, six-unit structure that cost 750,000 to build would cost 1,000,000/6 to buy per unit, which is of course significantly less than 250,000. Also, the new, higher value would offer the city about 4 times the tax revenue as the previous structure (in fact more in a way, since a non-homesteaded property pays more in school millage than a homesteaded one). Thus, a residence has become less expensive and value has been added to the property. There is a trade-off in terms of the type of residence (ie a condo site for a house), but this would be accounted for in a larger, city-wide growth management plan.

Headlee puts a limit on the tax rate on property, but not the tax paid as a result of improvements or appreciation. Proposal A is a sort-of cap, but in the scenario just described, would not impair the capture of greater tax revenue (except in the case of a tax dodge where the property is owned by an LLC or other such company, and the property is not actually sold, but the LLC that owns the property; then the property might not be reassessed.)

I don't think I've ever been out to Scio Town Center (though it sounds like a number of businesses have moved out there). Can people in the neighborhoods reasonably walk or bike there? Outside my hometown of Kalamazoo there is a sort of small-town center being developed in one of the townships called Texas Corners, which is a move somewhat in the right direction, except there is not enough density around it for it to be accessible by foot and everyone has to drive there.

9:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It has a coffee shop, a crafts store, a dry cleaners, a salon, a wine store, and Kitchenport on the ground floor, and then some condo units above them. I think there are also several other condos within walking distance, and conceibably a walk to Meijer's would be possible as well. No doctor's office though. Their website used to tout it as an example of "New Urbanism", although it's been taken offline since the commercial and residential spaces all sold out. It's a bit out there, but I could see something like that actually doing much better for the businesses in terms of volume if it were transplanted into the middle of one of the residential areas in Ann Arbor. Whether the businesses would actually make money would depend a lot on the rent (as was the issue for Kitchenport and the wine store).

5:06 AM  

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