Ann Arborites are still digesting what the Nov. 6 vote on Proposal A, and the heated debate that preceded it, means for community conversations about development and housing affordability in the future.
City voters said "yes" to the proposal that called for adding a section to the city charter requiring that all city-owned land on the downtown Library Lot block be retained in public ownership "in perpetuity" and developed as an urban park and civic center.
Proposal backers were pushing back against a plan developed by city council members to sell the land to developer Core Spaces. The developer proposed a 17-story mixed-use building at the location that would include hotel rooms, apartments, office space, and ground-floor retail, along with an outdoor plaza. City council had planned to earmark half of the proceeds from the sale, about $5 million, for the city's affordable housing fund.
Rhetoric on both sides of the issue was heated, heavily polarized, and often personal, and many community members are wondering if future conversations about development will continue to be so acrimonious. About a month after the election results came in, city officials and Core Spaces are mulling over next steps.
Ann Arbor mayor Chris Taylor says he believes Proposition A was "deeply unwise" and "throws a block central to the downtown into turmoil." Nevertheless, city officials will have to regroup and formulate a new plan unless the change to the city charter is repealed or declared invalid, Taylor says.
"We are still in the process of figuring out the consequences of the vote and of the ballot language, and Core Spaces is in the process of deciding what to do from their perspective," he says.
Because the community has committed to limiting sprawl and preserving green spaces, any new development will necessarily increase density. Taylor says people who want Ann Arbor to be affordable but don't want tall buildings are facing an "irresolvable contradiction."
Richard Norton, a professor with the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning who lives on Ann Arbor's Old West Side, says he's not sure backers of Prop A were thinking through the issue of growth and development versus protecting open spaces outside the city.
"If the community keeps on a case-by-case basis blocking efforts to grow taller, there will be increased pressure to grow out, and I'm not sure that's a good tradeoff," Norton says.
The other option is to limit development inside city limits, and Taylor doesn't think that's a good option, either.
"We have a tremendous amount of demand in Ann Arbor and a choice about what to do," Taylor says. "We can't just put a lid on growth, because that means prices for all housing, and all business leases, will continue to rise and Ann Arbor will continue to be more and more unaffordable."
Michele Heisler, professor of internal medicine and health behavior and health education at the University of Michigan, watched the debate carefully and says her fear is that the vote means the city has lost resources it could have used for the common good, and that the lot in question will "remain an ugly parking lot for the next 50 years."
Ali Ramlawi was recently sworn in as an Ann Arbor city council member, and his opposition to the Core Spaces deal partially inspired him to run for that office. However, he says, if he had "all the powers in the world" his vision for the site is still rather different from what Proposal A provides for. He describes building a new downtown location for the Ann Arbor District Library (AADL) on the site as a "win-win situation."
"Many people during the debate argued that ... we didn't need a new civic center or a commons because the (downtown AADL) served that purpose, and I found that to be true," he says. "It only makes sense to me ... to collaborate with the library and the city and the people who have brought this change to the city charter to develop a site that encompasses a commons area and also doubles as our public library."
Creating better conversations
Joshua Meisler, a social worker who grew up in Ann Arbor and owns a home on the city's south side, has worked with people experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity as a professional in Washtenaw County and in other places. He says the way discussions about affordable housing were used in the arguments over the sale of the property were "disappointing."
"I think we as a community have not put our money where our mouth is around housing for working-class people, and we haven't kept our promises to ourselves around what we're going to do about that and haven't put resources behind those promises," he says. "And so, to all of a sudden have this sale of city property be the plan, and have so much emphasis placed on this $5 million for affordable housing, which we desperately need, seemed disingenuous to me."
Heisler also found the rhetoric around Prop A to be "distasteful" and says social media postings were filled with "rancor."
She says she hopes future conversations about development will involve assuming everyone is making a "good faith" effort and focusing on shared priorities, such as ensuring that Ann Arbor has a "vibrant" downtown.
"We all agreed when we supported the Ann Arbor Greenbelt program that we need density," she says. "We need to be thinking about revenue, thinking about green spaces and ways we can fund affordable housing. All the same issues are floating around, so the people who supported Prop A need to help us be creative for making up that lost revenue," for affordable housing, she says.
Norton says he has a "great deal of respect" for Prop A proponents and their desire for a park in the heart of downtown, but he says he was "frustrated" with the way the conversation was framed and that the effort "wasn't connected to a larger discussion of issues of development and growth."
"Additionally, the way the proposal was framed made it sound like there was an exciting proposal to do a pavilion and park with funding all lined up and ready to go," Norton says.
Taylor says creating better conversations about growth in Ann Arbor will require convincing residents and voters that "growth is a necessary and good thing for the community as a whole," increasing the tax base and providing services Ann Arbor residents enjoy.
Ramlawi suggests that both city council and community conversations should shift towards the bigger-picture issue of reevaluating Ann Arbor's master plan and zoning, rather than having debates on a development-by-development basis. By the time a development makes it before council for approval, he says council "has very little opportunity at that point to weigh in."
"We need to change zoning in the master plan so we don't have such contentious debate once it reaches that final stage," Ramlawi says.
Norton also says planning and development conversations require getting residents engaged earlier in the process, "way before specific projects are proposed," and connecting specific issues to the larger picture of development in the community.
"People often don't come out until there's a specific proposal and then they're angry and unhappy," Norton says.
He says the city is already making some efforts toward engagement but says it could do more. He suggests that instead of announcing meetings for residents to attend, city planners could come to residents and try to have more casual, impromptu conversations on the sidewalk, at restaurants, and in other community locations.
Norton says this kind of outreach may help convey the message that requests for feedback are not merely "pro forma," but that the city and planners are really listening to community concerns and that they want to find a way to work together.
"Sometimes asking for feedback is worse when you ask for it and don't do anything with it than not having asked," Norton says. "We need to figure out how to develop that kind of fruitful feedback, follow through in good faith, listen carefully, and be prepared to act."
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the interim project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She has served as innovation and jobs/development news writer for Concentrate since early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to Driven. You may reach her at email@example.com.
All photos by Doug Coombe.