Controversies around new developments often follow a predictable pattern, with residents getting involved late in the approval process, typically when the development already seems like a done deal. Residents then make passionate pleas to preserve their city's character and to fend off outsiders coming in to build something ugly and outsized.
But what if citizens could be involved earlier in the process and could work with developers, instead of against them, to create development that would enhance the city?
Groups in Ann Arbor and around the country are pursuing that ideal by forming "YIMBY" groups – standing for "Yes in My Backyard," a response to the "NIMBY"/"Not in My Backyard" sentiments often expressed towards development. The YIMBY movement has been growing in various cities around the U.S. over the last few years and it reached Ann Arbor last year.
Ann Arbor resident and Downtown Development Authority board member Jessica A.S. Letaw has been following news about national YIMBY movements for a few years. In August of 2017 she was inspired to start an Ann Arbor YIMBY group on Facebook, largely in response to conversations Ann Arbor residents were having around election primaries and the ongoing controversy over what to do with the city-owned Library Lot.
"We need to be talking about affordable housing and transit-oriented development and making other areas beside the downtown hospitable," Letaw says. "I felt like we were losing the opportunity to talk about wider issues and do so in a positive way."
Letaw says development plans are too often framed as the city being handed a project and residents having to decide if they're on board or not.
"It's a hopeless, powerless place to be," she says. "It's much more effective to say I have a community, I have my values, I'm inclusive, and I want a broad spectrum of people here and projects across town that address this need."
Letaw says the YIMBY mindset encourages residents to ask, "What can I do to help this development match the values I think Ann Arbor shares?" She emphasizes that it's important "not to get hung up on any particular project" like the Y lot, the Library Lot, or senior housing on Jackson Avenue.
"We don't need any one of these projects to do everything," Letaw says, "but it's important that all of them complement and cultivate the community we want" and contribute to a variety of housing options that will welcome people at different life stages with different needs.
People of YIMBY
Letaw has studied architecture and other members of the YIMBY Ann Arbor Facebook group have niche interests ranging from urban planning to bicycle commuting, but Letaw says many members are just average residents who ask good questions and make meaningful contributions.
Jarod Malestein works in information technology and has no urban planning or architecture background, but the Ann Arbor YIMBY group is a fit for his interest in the built environment.
About four years ago, he learned about a nonprofit organization called Strong Towns that emphasizes a model of development creating resilience and financial strength.
"At some point, I got tired of reading stuff and wanted to change my thoughts into action," he says. "The Ann Arbor YIMBY group seemed to be full of people interested in helping to make Ann Arbor a better place."
He says the YIMBY mindset translates thoughts into action by making residents better informed when voting, and can spur them to get involved in committees and commissions around the city. He has been inspired to get involved with the Ann Arbor Citizens Academy, for instance.
Victoria Green is an Ann Arbor District Library trustee and a bicycle commuting advocate who joined the Ann Arbor YIMBY group because a friend invited her. She says she's not sure she'd ever even heard the term YIMBY before then.
"I've been living in Ann Arbor for about 25 years, and one thing I've seen over that time is that it is easy to be resistant to change around you," she says. "Even if you agree with it, you might still be nervous about the change. I like the idea behind YIMBY to push yourself to see non-immediate benefits to the changes around you and see that it could be a great thing for me and for Ann Arbor in the long run."
Jeff Gaynor, a retired teacher and current Ann Arbor Public Schools trustee, says his interest in YIMBY stems from watching Detroit being "devastated" by urban sprawl as he grew up. He's also interested in transportation issues and has spent more time on his bicycle than in a car.
"I didn't have a direct interest in development and zoning and some of these other seemingly esoteric issues, but through the Facebook groups and meetings and discussions I've been learning a tremendous amount about development, affordability, and the impact of transportation," he says. "I'm fascinated by the connections between all of these aspects."
Connecting the dots
Several YIMBY members say the group has helped them see new connections between issues. For instance, Green notes that "people are eager for retail, but they're not eager for housing. It's hard for them to see that you need the housing in order to drive demand for retail. People focus on the negative, like it might be harder to find parking, but it also might be worth it to have neighborhoods support the local commercial district people want."
The YIMBY group also has a strong interest in the intersection between affordable housing and transportation. Building more densely all over, but especially near transportation hubs, is an important point for the group. Green says that the closer people can live to their jobs, the less environmental resources and time are taken up.
Gaynor says maintaining a "healthy bus system" is important for people who work in Ann Arbor but can't afford to live in the city.
"Developing community and neighborhoods around safe bus, pedestrian, and bike access is an important way of focusing on affordability," Letaw says.
Letaw says that if nothing else happens, she'd like to see Ann Arbor be friendlier to building more apartments, since they are the easiest housing option for young people, new families, first-time homeowners, and anyone with an income that isn't steady. She says apartments also tend to have the benefits of creating density, encouraging development of new bus routes, and becoming job centers in and of themselves as small retail shops spring up around them.
Inspiration and cautionary tales from other cities
YIMBY members point to numerous examples nationwide of what works and what doesn't in managing growth. Letaw notes that San Francisco has recently seen its "horrifically" high housing prices drop slightly due to significant new construction. She says the scale of the project makes a big difference, noting that it will take a major increase in housing units to affect affordability here.
"Say a 600-house subdivision goes up, and prices in the community go up, and residents say, 'See, we told you it would make the town more expensive,'" she says. "But if you continue to add luxury and market-rate and affordable housing, a diversity of housing types, eventually prices do level out."
Kit McCullough, a lecturer at the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, brings her background and a broader perspective to Ann Arbor YIMBY discussions. She grew up in Austin and watched the city make "so many horrible mistakes as it grew to become this huge, sprawling, auto-dominated, extensively-segregated city."
When she moved to Ann Arbor, she was struck by how much it felt like Austin did when she was young.
"It's culturally the same, a small town with a big university and a bunch of grumpy old hippies, with everyone complaining that their small town is changing too fast," she says. "There's this head-in-the-sand mentality about growth and the future, a denial that the city is going to grow, instead of deciding how it's going to grow."
She says that in Austin this led to poor decisions that included building public transit too late, after the city was already very auto-oriented, so it wasn't easy to retrofit it for an urban rail system.
"Every decision they made was about putting the car first and making sure there was parking, instead of building around transit, walking, and bicycling," McCullough says. "The city is now so traffic gridlocked. It's in a really bad place."
Boulder, Colo., has a different problem: it basically "zoned out growth," McCullough says.
"That may be the model Ann Arbor is most closely following, but I don't think we want to emulate that city either," she says. "Teachers, cooks at restaurants, and staff at the university have to live far away and commute in, and only the wealthy get to live in the core."
On the positive side, she sees Portland as a model worth emulating.
"One thing they did is put in a growth boundary, and that helped to a certain extent to keep development in Portland more compact," she says.
At its core, Letaw says YIMBY is a platform for these broader conversations about the built environment in Ann Arbor and beyond. It's not about specific projects but about articulating the future residents want to see for their city and the values the city holds dear.
"That's much more empowering, positive, and gratifying for me personally, rather than constant reactivity," she says.
She says it's okay for people who support the YIMBY philosophy to have doubts or concerns about certain development proposals.
"The point of YIMBY is not to be a rubber stamp for development," she says. "The point is that it's a platform for us to create, together, a vision of the community we'd like to see ourselves building. If something comes up that doesn't match that vision, we should be able to call it out and be able to state what we'd like to see in its place."
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe.