5 tough questions with Roger Hewitt of Ann Arbor's DDA

Confession: When downtown development authority board member of more than a decade Roger Hewitt explains to this reporter how the unique financial function of DDAs contribute to public perception problems and controversy, he's preaching to the choir. As a former DDA director, I get it. And, in general here at Concentrate, what we like to think of as our  understanding and in-depth coverage of development issues often has us shining a positive light on the work of the Ann Arbor DDA and other such economic development organizations. 

So when even we started raising our eyebrows at some of the most recent news coming from the oft-controversy plagued DDA—from a $300,000 per year downtown ambassador program that sparked outrage from business owners and residents alike, to seemingly brushing off regional income inequality concerns by calling Ypsilanti the Brooklyn to Ann Arbor's Manhattan— we wondered what in the world was going on. Doesn't the DDA have enough controversy to contend with when they're just renovating streetscapes and dealing with the impossible task of downtown parking management?

According to Hewitt, the DDA is well aware of the brouhaha they've recently kicked up. And just like the never-ending questioning of whether the DDA has too much power (or too much money, or not enough money, sometimes), he says much of the recent controversies stem from a lack of awareness around the policies they've proposed and the way development has happened downtown over the last few decades.

We sit down with Mr. Hewitt in an effort to get up to speed.

Why are DDA issues such hot button issues?

I've been working downtown now for about 30 years. During that time, Ann Arbor has been changing from a funky little college town into a city. There has been more construction in the last five years than there probably has been in the previous 50. So there's been a lot of change in a short period of time, and that is disturbing to a lot of people. People generally don't like things to change very quickly.

What we need to remember is this is primarily being driven by the growth of the university. There is no real local control over that. The university has been growing at a steady rate and bringing in a lot of employment. It's having an impact on the whole city and particularly the downtown because it's right next to the university. 

I certainly understand the people who have reservations about the amount of change. And the most visible change, the new construction. With some of it, the architecture has been good. [With] some of it, it hasn't been particularly good. I would like to see all the new construction be attractive and it hasn't all been. And [that construction] is bringing a lot of more people, so [downtown] is a lot more crowded. But the idea that some people have, that we can somehow just stop this and freeze it, I don't think is realistic. 

The very positive part of this, is that it is leading to job growth in a state that desperately needs job growth, and it's attracting younger workers in a state that desperately needs younger workers. If you take a more regional view, this is very positive. Even if the impacts make some people uncomfortable. Growth is going to take place and it's our job to make sure it's as compatible with the values of the city as possible. 

There's continued demand for downtown housing, but people seem to love to complain about new housing developments. How does downtown grow to meet demand without growing out of the character and into the residential neighborhoods people want to protect? 

I was, about ten years ago, on a task force to redo the zoning downtown. Back then the concern was trying to get more housing downtown. There were only about 2,500 people living in the DDA area. Our goal was, over 20 years, to get another 2,500 people living downtown. Ten years later, we've already passed that goal. The idea that more people living downtown is going to create more vibrant downtown is a very valid one, one that I think has been proven to be true.  But it does change the character of downtown. 

I think a lot of the things people like about downtown have been made possible by the increased number of residents downtown. You can't say, "Gee, I love all these restaurants and everything, but I wish there wasn't so many people down there." If you look at how things were 30 years ago, we talked about how fragile downtown was, and how it could go downhill.

People forget that what we have downtown hasn't been here very long. A lot of the things people love about downtown have taken place in the last 20 years. You can say, "I don't want to change the character of downtown," but you probably didn't really like what downtown looked like 30 years ago. It wasn't a very attractive place. 

The new Washtenaw County housing needs assessment shows us that when we're talking about affordable housing, we're not just talking about Section 8 housing, but middle class housing. Do you view housing affordability as an issue downtown? 

This is going to be my own view on things: In the downtown, particularly the D1 and also the D2 [zoning areas], we're building high rises…that's very, very expensive housing to build. I think you can only build four stories out of stick or wood construction, then you have to switch to concrete and steel, which gets much more expensive. So the idea that you could build high-density, affordable housing in the private sector, probably isn't really possible. The economics just don't work. You're going to have to be able to get the right kind of sale price or rent to be able to afford that kind of construction. 

So if we want what we call workforce housing in the DDA area, there is going to have to be some sort of significant subsidy. If that is a community goal to put middle class housing in the DDA area, the question is where is that rather significant subsidy going to come from, and how will it be administered? The DDA has done a number of grants to do affordable units in downtown, as well as maintain them, but if you're going to talk about something that will have any sort of significant impact, you're going to be talking about something that is beyond the scope of what the DDA has available. 

The downtown ambassadors program has caused lots of controversy. People have said it doesn't fit with the character people want to see in their downtown, and that it seeks to solve a problem that doesn't exist. Do you understand that criticism, and what is your reaction to it?

We definitely heard the criticism. We are going forward at a very measured, careful pace as a result of it. There was a lot of misinformation about what the program was going to do, and I don't know how that information got out. Most of the commenters, if you read them, hadn't read any of the information that we put out about the program. And these are programs that are throughout the nation. We've identified at least 70 downtowns that have this program, including Berkley, and they seem to be quite happy with it there. 

Before we do anything on ambassadors, we need to to explain exactly what we're trying to do with this program, which is, basically, help people at all levels. Whether you are a panhandler on the street or whether you are parents bringing a student in, it's someone there to offer some help if you need it. To me, it's a very fundamental Ann Arbor value. 

I think there is somewhat of a disconnect between what goes on in the campus area and what goes on in the Main Street area. I don't think everyone understands the different cultures of the two areas. [The problem the ambassadors program is seeking to solve] is primarily in the campus area. So people are not seeing it. At night, particularly later in the evening, there is a fair amount petty crime that goes on that would make an extra set eyes on the street helpful. I think there are more homeless people in the campus area and a number of these people need help. Both the boards of the State Street Association and the South University Association unanimously support the ambassador program.

But we certainly have heard people, and we certainly aren't going to ram anything down people's throats. We are certainly not going to start negotiating a contract until the community has a good understanding of the program and at least a majority of people support of it. 

It feels like the DDA is always fighting perception issues. When you're thinking about new programs, like the ambassadors, are those perception issues something you are keeping in mind? 

We very much are. Any time you've got a governmental body that is not elected, that has a fair amount of capital, there is going to be controversy. When I first came on the DDA and we didn't have a lot of money, it wasn't very controversial. But in any political world, the elected officials, and a certain amount of the electorate, think that they should make all the decisions around finances. DDAs were set up specifically to take some of that decision making out of the political system. The reason for that is when you're building infrastructure, it takes a long time to plan, design and build something—a parking structure or sidewalks—and you have to save up a significant amount of cash to do that. 

There is an understanding problem between governmental entities that do operational things, where you're looking at a balanced budget every year, and infrastructure organizations like the DDA, which does major projects that span multiple years. We will, for a number of years, show budget surpluses, building up fund balances so we can do projects, and then that will be paid down. For people who don't understand that process, it's very easy to say, "You have too much money," or "You don't have enough money." 

And we've been criticized for both. It's a perception problem, and we certainly haven't been very good at communicating how an infrastructure organization works. I think we need to do a better job of that. And clearly, we need to do a better job at explaining the ambassador program, and a number of things we do. 

Natalie Burg is a freelance writer, development news editor for Concentrate and IMG project editor.

All photos by Doug Coombe.

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