Blog: Conan Smith

Conan Smith is our guest blogger this week. He is the executive director of the Michigan Suburbs Alliance, a Washtenaw County Commissioner and an executive board member of SEMCOG

Patient as summer rain, easily distracted by home brew, and optimistic beyond reason, Conan sounds off on metropolitanism like a Wild West snakeoil salesman.
 

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Conan Smith - Most Recent Posts:

Post No. 4

Betting on the Tracks

I have two small pieces of paper from my early childhood, given to me by my grandfather when he was mayor of Ann Arbor. One is a note card commemorating my first train ride, complete with a drawing of engine and caboose. The other is my first driver’s license, authorizing my use of tricycles, bicycles and all other vehicles within the city limits.  

When I was a kid, we were just as likely to take the train as drive to anywhere distant. My grandfather had prepared me for either alternative, but as time moved on, it became evident that the tattered driver’s license would be the more useful piece of memorabilia.

I’m not going to bore you with statistics this time.  There’s nothing numbers can tell you about our transportation system that a 45-minute rush hour commute won’t illuminate with more impact. Rather, I want to share with you what I think we’re missing and what the first steps to reclaim it are.

One hundred and seventy years ago, Michigan's first train took to the rails. Even by frontier standards if must have been an unusual trip. The rails were cut from oak trees. The car was pulled by a team of horses. The route between what is now Toledo and the boom-town of Adrian passed over (and often due to the weather, through) the thick swamp that covered most of southeast Michigan. The forty mile trek could take as long as two full days. Despite the hardship of the trip, it was cause for great celebration. The coming of the rail meant essential things for a community: new residents would move there, new businesses would crop up, the town would be connected in an important and constant way. 

More than a century and half later, these things are still true. 

Most people who live here, however, are rightfully skeptical that that transit could ever be successful. In large part, we don’t know where we’d get on and if it would take us where we need to go. In truth, most jobs in the region are scattered an unreasonable walking distance from any transit stop, existing or proposed.  

For 50 years, as the individual freedom offered by the automobile increasingly captured the American imagination (not to mention huge quantities of the federal budget), we have ignored the sinister consequences of a new kind of development: exploitative, segregationist, and unsustainable. Harsh words. Understand, it’s not the fault of the car. That’s a marvelous machine.

The machine at work here is political, a careless interaction of short-sighted public policy and selfish social mores. It has torn apart our region with grueling efficiency.

Restoring vibrancy to SE Michigan requires some keen attention to what John Elkington called the “triple bottom line,” a commitment to economic prosperity, environmental sustainability and social equity. For too many years we have allowed our culture to fall out of balance, relying on the strength of our auto industry economy to overshadow increasing social inequities and declining environmental quality. Now that our economic prospects aren’t so strong, these companion weakness are being thrown into glaring light. Our regional renaissance must recognize the unavoidable interplay between these three essential elements.

Not coincidentally, there’s a regular drumbeat call for transit in southeast Michigan. We are, after all, the only major metropolitan area in the country without a comprehensive mass transit system. And transit is a powerful development tool that serves the triple bottom line.  

The economic benefits of transit are well-documented. Not only does it elevate personal economy by reducing individual transportation costs, but business located along transit lines appear to thrive whether they are large or small. 

According to the US EPA, most air pollution in our region comes from automobiles. While technology is slow to advance, transit provides an effective foil against toxic emissions. 

Heaster Wheeler, Executive Director of the Detroit NAACP, has noted that transit is an essential equity-builder in our region. And he notes the need for white leadership on the issue. He and I agree that skeptics should not be empowered to declare transit a problem of “urban” (read black) or poor communities. But if transit is to work for everyone, people must have places to come from and places to go.

One way to begin is by rethinking the shape of our neighborhoods. We need to design places to live that are intentionally communal – that foster interaction and interdependence. These places respect our natural resources by using land efficiently and ensuring that water pollution is effectively mitigated. They concentrate our economic power into self-supporting cycles allowing more dollars to stay in our region.  And they help us defy the desire to separate, segregate, and leave others to their own devices. 

Enter “transit-oriented development.” This neighborhood design model integrates mixed-use development and pedestrian-scale designs to support transit and advance economic development.  

There is no doubt that we need transit. We need transit-oriented development even more. It is a strong and underutilized building block for community revitalization and redevelopment. If our region is to survive, to compete globally and nationally in the next 20 years, we must draw residents and businesses back into the fabric of community. To do that, we need neighborhoods that will support their values and meet their goals. Transit-oriented development gives us options that our region simply does not have right now.  

It’s far past time that we should be prioritzing transit and transit-oriented development. By giving these investments the time and attention they deserve in our stumbling economy, one day our own grandchildren will have the opportunity to trade their tattered drivers’ licenses for that note about the train.


Post No. 5

The Future, According to a Non-Prophet Organization

Today, I am officially middle aged.  No longer one of the touted 21-34 year olds who are our inevitable future, I fall into the august company of those who have writ the present. Overcome by my newfound gentility, I feel compelled to expound to my younger brethren on their role in building our region, and securing my comfortable retirement. At 35 I have seen a lot. Why, when I was born . . . no, enough of that. Rather that retrospection, let’s look forward to tomorrow.  

Here then, my friends, is what I urge: Defy the separatist legacy of generations and build a future on the promise of clasped hands and open hearts.  
 
Give us Metropolitan Solutions to Old Challenges

It would be foolhardy to carry on the notion that we can somehow make a better world for ourselves by ignoring our neighbors. After all, what good would the road be if it stopped at your city’s border? Water flows downhill. Wind carries the smoke from your chimney through your neighbor’s window. We are inextricably interrelated. Raise the call for practices and policies that take problems out of the hands of the few and recognize that solutions must be found on a metropolitan level.

Take, for example, the things that really bind us together: roads, water lines, sewers the mundane but essential skeleton of our region. Across all of Michigan’s metropolitan areas, infrastructure maintenance is a major concern.  Billions of dollars worth of road, water and sewer upkeep have been deferred over the past thirty years, in exchange for increasing investment in new construction. This system is not sustainable over generations, and already we are starting to see the consequences. We cannot continue to sacrifice what benefits us all for what serves a select few.

Be bold and seek to understand what years of working independently have sacrificed.
 
Insist on Collaboration and Unity in the Face of Adversity

Michigan is one of the most governmentally fragmented states in the nation and, while our fragmented system offers many benefits like smaller, more accessible governments, it often results in local interests superseding the welfare of the region. Cities everywhere are facing shrinking revenue streams and struggling to provide municipal services. By working together and sharing resources, local governments can maintain and even improve essential public services like fire and police protection.  

Cooperation is essential to building more cohesive regions and making more efficient use of limited funds. Distributing revenue regionally will encourage neighboring governments to work together to enhance future revenue rather than to compete for tax base. Consolidating services where appropriate will allow their more economical and effective delivery.  More importantly, the exploration of these options – even if fruitless – reminds us that this nation was made strong original on the premise “e pluribus unum.”

Be creative and find new ways to lean on each other to build community.
 
Transform our Insular Culture to One of Inclusion and Equity

We have found so many ways to hide ourselves from each other. I contend that racism motivated the birth of many of Detroit’s suburbs – not just black and white divisions, but the more subtle and equally pervasive discrimination among competing white cultures. Our natural human inclination to group with people who are like us and oppose those who are different was amplified by public policies that allowed us to concretely – and semi-permanently – define the borders of our cities. Families that feared integration in Detroit public schools gravitated to communities that could incorporate independently and form their own school districts. Investments into “urban” communities declined as suburbs grew. The fragmentation and segregation that this system supported has caused our economy to collapse in on itself – not because we have separate cities, but because we have evolved into separate peoples. Our division must end.  

We should strive for personal prosperity for everyone, by providing housing, health care and education second to none. We should economically stabilize our cities so every family has a strong community to depend on. And we must proactively support those strategies that reduce the racial and economic walls between our communities that have been raised over the course of our nation’s history.  

Be fearless, I urge you, and embrace everything that is different from what you know.
 
Whether you are a visionary, academic, pragmatist or poet, yours is the voice that will transform our region. Give us all your dreams. Give us your insight and analysis. Give us your business plans. Give us your song. We stand on the edge of disaster . . . or enlightenment . . . and you can help us fly.

Thanks for reading. 


Post No. 3

Building, Money and Power


Let’s take a tour through a prototypical first-tier suburb.  

About twenty thousand people live here. They’re among the most socially active people in the state; they lead nonprofits, donate to political candidates and volunteer for community events.  They own and work in the downtown businesses and they shop locally, intentionally.  Community is essential to them, and the neighborhood is more than just a safe place to park the car at night.

Their city is an orderly reflection of the design dreams of its founders.  Two or three commercial corridors stand out as major transportation arteries – wide roads of three to nine lanes. On one side the community is bounded by a highway; the others blend somewhat seamlessly into the neighboring city. Neighborhoods are defined by streets too. Square blocks of residential streets, mostly obscured by mature hardwoods, are hemmed in by wider two and three lane roads. Here and there a clear space of parkland or school yard breaks up a comfortably dense aggregation of houses. Main Street comprises an eclectic collection of shops and restaurants, government buildings and second story offices.  Sidewalks are ubiquitous although generous percentages of land are given up to parking. 

All but hidden from view is the enormous stress that this community is under. The people who live here are generally ready to tax themselves to maintain a high quality of life and sustain the character of their city, but the legacies of a shifting economy and investments in urban sprawl infrastructure and policy engines are taking their toll. The streets aren’t as smooth as they might be. Vacated industrial buildings await transformation to modern uses. Subtle reductions in services (city parks get mowed every other week now and there are a few less firefighters on the job) are starting to show through the veneer of a once-prized and fought over community.

This scenario is common throughout metro Detroit, from Warren to Roseville, Hazel Park to Farmington Hills, Inkster to Taylor to Dearborn Heights. These communities encompass the variety of southeast Michigan. They are growing and shrinking, racially mixed and monochromatic, well-to-do and economically struggling. The crisis they face is unique and structural... just like the solutions we need to adopt to overcome it.

Michigan’s cities are slowly dying, starving for resources to deliver high quality services and maintain existing infrastructure. At some level, it’s all about money. To understand the difficulty of the fiscal challenge cities face, you have to understand the interaction between two complex finance policies that are part of the state Constitution: 1978’s Headlee Amendment and 1994’s Proposal A.  

Headlee essentially limits the growth in local property taxes to the rate of inflation. Two things are at play here:  the tax rate (i.e., the percent of a property’s value that an owner must pay each year) and the tax base (i.e., the value of the property itself). If market forces increase the tax base higher than the rate of inflation, then Headlee forces cities to reduce the tax rate appropriately. The example below shows how an increase in the market value of property greater than the rate of inflation forces the city to reduce its tax rate.

  Taxable Value Tax Rate (Mills) Tax Collections
Base Year $1,000,000,000 10.000 $   10,000,000
3% Inflation $1,030,000,000 10.000 $   10,300,000
5% Market Increase $1,070,000,000 10.000 $   10,700,000
Headlee Rollback $1,070,000,000 9.626 $   10,300,000

Proposal A provides a similar tax shelter for individual property owners. It limits the increase in taxable value on each individual parcel to the rate of inflation (or five percent, whichever is less). When property is sold or transferred, its taxable value is adjusted to its current value. The example below shows how the taxable value “pops-up” when a property is sold. Notice that the new owners are paying taxes on more than $5,000 of additional value that the previous owners avoided.

  Market Value Taxable Value Inflation Rate Market Increase
Base Year $  100,000 $  50,000 2.50% 5%
Year 2 $  105,000 $  51,250 2.50% 5%
Year 3 $  110,250 $  52,531 2.50% 5%
Year 4 (Sale) $  115,763 $  57,881 2.50% 5%

Each of these policies serves to balance growth and taxation, and each has its benefits. Proposal A, for example, provides a buffer against the effects of gentrification in cities by protecting existing homeowners from being forced out of their neighborhoods by rampant tax increases due to growth in market value. A significant problem arises, however, from the interaction of these two policies.

Did you notice that the Proposal A “pop-up” resulted in an increase of taxable value of 10 percent on the one property? If this happens across many properties in one year – or if the pop-ups are even higher (imagine a property that changed hands after 15 years) – it can force an even more significant Headlee rollback. This is somewhat artificial because the full effect of the pop-up is felt in one year, rather than averaged out across the years that growth was held in check by Proposal A.  

The end result is that the Headlee rollback caused by Proposal A pop-ups reduces the overall tax rate in a city so much that tax collections grow slower than the rate of inflation. With health care costs increasing at seven percent annually, retirement obligations growing and public safety costs eating up around half of a city’s budget, revenue growth this slow is a recipe for financial ruin. In fact, some estimate that as many as 70 Michigan cities sit on the brink of bankruptcy because of this policy problem.

Under Michigan’s current systems of municipal finance and urban investment, there are only a handful of strategies local leaders can use to combat this phenomenon. They can promote redevelopment, which doesn’t count in the Headlee calculation. They can collaborate with neighboring communities to provide services, which shares the cost burden (sometimes) and can result in more effective delivery (sometimes). And, they can beg for structural reforms from the State.

As wonderful as it is to see old buildings rejuvenated, redevelopment cannot save any city from this fiscal predicament, no matter how vibrant the market. Our hypothetical city above would have to generate $40-$80 million in new development every year to keep up with costs. In communities like Michigan’s inner-ring suburbs, which are 90 to 100 percent built out, this is an unlikely proposition.  

Since we can’t build our way out of this problem, it is up to the Legislature to make the fix. The Michigan Municipal League articulated the Headlee/Prop A dilemma nearly four years ago, but lawmakers have continuously failed to acknowledge the ravaging impacts it has on our cities. In fact, a proposal passed this month by the Democrat-controlled Michigan House of Representatives would place a moratorium on the pop-up, further depressing revenue and shunting urban interests just as their Republican predecessors have done.  

Michigan’s cities will not dig their way out of this hole without structural reforms to the state’s local government finance system. It will be tragic if one of them has to fall into bankruptcy to convince our lawmakers of the seriousness of this issue.


Post No. 2

Looking Back for a Way Forward: Smart Growth and sustainable development; autonomy and interactivity 
 
 
"The 37 million acres that are Michigan is all the Michigan we will ever have..."
-Michigan Governor William Milliken

Twenty five years ago, Governor Bill Milliken sent a stirring message to the Michigan Legislature, calling for a government response to a pattern of land development that he envisioned would cripple the state’s cities and devastate the farmland and open space that so many residents treasured.  His call to the Legislature was rooted in a broad package of bills ranging from reforming the process for land division to eliminating inconsistencies among Michigan’s three zoning acts.  Only one bill ever managed to pass both houses of the Legislature – the Michigan Natural Resources Inventory – and that program, which would have provided a comprehensive database of land cover and land uses, was never fully funded.  The consequences I don’t have to explain to you.

Part of the Milliken package was an attentiveness to urban areas that neither Democrat nor Republican has equaled since.  In his biography of the governor, Dave Dempsey recalls Milliken’s unorthodox approach to southeast Michigan and the struggling central city of Detroit:  he cared.  He cared enough to risk the displeasure of his party contemporaries who even thirty years ago saw Detroit as a lost cause.  He cared so sincerely that it won him the enduring support of Detroit’s iconoclastic new mayor, Coleman Young – an alliance that probably secured his next two reelection bids.  Milliken knew then what obstinacy has taught us today through the school of hard knocks:  as goes Detroit, so goes Michigan.  

Three decades later, that message must be extended beyond the core city to include the inner-ring suburbs that are now facing the same crisis of disinvestment and population decline that plagued Detroit in the 1970’s.  And it must be heeded, at long last.  

We’ve built roads that we can’t afford to maintain.  We’ve built communities that don’t provide a third of life’s essentials (food, for example), necessitating extensive travel for basic amenities.  We’ve abandoned as many neighborhoods as we’ve built over the last fifteen years, leaving core cities like Flint and Detroit hollow shells with infrastructure for two to three times the current population.  We have created a society that will inevitably collapse in on itself under the weight of our own ignorance and arrogance. 

Today a growing coalition of business, political and social leaders are accepting the importance of sustainability as a guiding principle in public policy and investment decisions.  We are turning to the strategies of more frugal generations and recognizing the ancillary benefits they offer, like a more interrelated human community and neighborhoods that ooze Norman Rockwell character.

At the heart of this movement is a set of urban development principles commonly known as Smart Growth.  Ten fundamental goals underlie the policy and development approaches to sustaining cities in this model, and they hearken back to a time before the 1970’s subdivision became the dominant community type.  Mixed land uses create room for the neighborhood grocery or Main Street-style shops and restaurants surrounded by housing.  A range of housing opportunities provides small apartments and studios for young couples and retirees as well as single-family detached homes with room for children and gardens.  Transportation is deliberately targeted to be multimodal, allowing families to trade in a car for bikes or to take advantage of mass transit that is both efficient and functional.  

The provision of these neighborhood characteristics is backed up by policy decisions that support long-term sustainable development and recognize that investments made by government today – particularly when it comes to development – have a very long reach.  Effective Smart Growth implementation balances the need for intense public participation in the visioning and design processes with providing clarity and consistency for developers.  Investment decisions by government target the reuse of existing infrastructure to maximize its value and reduce the strain on maintenance budgets.

Smart Growth communities are attracting a new kind of consumer from a generation that grew up without a strong sense of place.  These are the young, talented workers of the knowledge economy who are easing the transition from manufacturing to service-based industries as the basis of our financial system.  For many of them, the communities of southeast Michigan offer a perfect venue to exercise their creative vision and innate American pioneer spirit.  They are reviving neighborhoods in Detroit, Highland Park, and Roseville.  They are taking the street designs of English and French planners from three-hundred years ago and laying the fingerprint of a community that communicates globally and shops locally on them.  

They are sometimes hindered, however, by generations of local rules and traditions stacked up on one another like a pile of fall leaves, with little acknowledgement of the underlying intent of regulation.  The member cities of the Michigan Suburbs Alliance recognized this and called for a program that would articulate the best practices in the country for fostering redevelopment and provide technical assistance to those who had the political will to change.  The resulting Redevelopment Ready Communities project is at work in twelve of the region’s inner-ring suburbs, helping them transform a legacy of abandoned industrial sites and outmoded post-WWII housing into opportunities for enterprising new community builders.

All of this action, however, must not be local.  There is a compelling need for state and regional strategies to support the renaissance of Michigan’s cities, which will place its highest demands on state government and insist that lawmakers stop poking cities in the eye, pledging undying affection while undermining the fiscal mechanisms that create stability and security.  The Michigan Environmental Council has called for "Smart Investments" from state lawmakers to create the regulatory environment in which Smart Growth works.  Any urban agenda has to start with money.  It’s not necessarily new dollars or tax increases, but it is decidedly about prioritizing our spending to support the cities that have served as the foundation of our economy for generations.  Again, not so that they can continue business as usual, but to aid in their evolution as places of choice for a new generation.  

Bringing vibrancy and economic prosperity back to Michigan and our region is a complex endeavor, but land use decisions have to be a major component.  There was a time when government and the private sector agreed that cities were the right place to invest their dollars and pin their hopes.  It was a formula that created the atmosphere for innovation that pervaded the early 20th century.  Over three generations we have learned how to surmount the environmental and social failings of that model, and it is time to restore primacy to cities as the centers of Michigan’s economic recovery and the hope of a thriving and sustainable future.


Post No. 1

I Only Wanted Something Else To Do But Hang Around
 
The first photo of me (not technically, but with poetic license) was shot as my heavily pregnant mother and ruggedly bearded father ran the rapids on Canada’s Black River. At age six I had my own backpack and was proud to have hiked the Big Carp River trail in the Porcupine Mountains. By the time I was 20, I’d worn a hole through a very pricey pair of Vasque boots – the kind with lug soles made for strapping crampons onto. At 26, I secured real employment with the Michigan Environmental Council, cementing what most thought was a permanent gig where my long hair and penchant for holey jeans wouldn’t disrupt a fiery passion for community organizing and political change. 

So, less than a decade later, here I am, hair shorn, neck wrapped in a tie, shilling for suburbia. What the hell happened?

In my nascent years in environmental advocacy, I started to hear a mantra from conservationists, home builders, realtors, environmentalists and urbanites. It was best encapsulated by Michigan Farm Bureau president, Jack Laurie: "We can’t save our farms until we save our cities." As I spent day after day fighting urban sprawl by pushing for development regulations and urging funding for farmland preservation programs, Michigan’s system of funding unsustainable development contradicted what I heard everybody asking for. My frustration built with every new highway lane to the hinterland and each “economic development" dollar we spent moving jobs from one struggling city to its low-tax neighboring township. 

Until someone said, come run the Michigan Suburbs Alliance. Much to the horror of friends and family (“You work for who?!”), I took the job. 

The suburbs have gotten a bad rap over the past couple of decades. Depicted as homogenous bastions of fast-food and white faces where rich kids smoke pot and commit petty crimes out of boredom, suburbia became synonymous with blandness and despair. Influential social critics like James Howard Kunstler in his landmark book "The Geography of Nowhere" laid heavy blame on modern development for the demise of the American dream:

The tragic landscape of highway strips, parking lots, housing tracts, mega-malls, junked cities, and ravaged countryside that makes up the everyday environment where most Americans live and work [is]...a land full of places that are not worth caring about [and] will soon be a nation and a way of life that is not worth defending.

In truth, there are many faces on the suburban die. I’ll be the first to admit that there are those communities where beige is the pervasive color, sidewalks are anomalous, and green grass is the product of chemical dependency rather than a sign of a healthy environment. But there are a number of suburbs that share a deep connection with traditional cities. Places where culture abounds, people congregate, and front porches outnumber garages.  

According to the Brooking Institute, a fifth of America’s population lives in these "first suburbs."  In southeast Michigan, they are cities like Dearborn, Royal Oak, Ferndale and Hamtramck, renown for art galleries, ethnic festivals, great restaurants and social diversity. Nation-wide, inner-ring suburbs are more reflective of America’s population than any other group of communities, mirroring the country’s growth in racial diversity over the past three decades. They offer better access to the American dream with higher than average employment, college graduation rates, housing values and median incomes.  

Simultaneously, there is a strong economic link between first-tier suburbs and their core cities. In fact, CEO’s for Cities notes that there is a multiplier effect between cities and their suburbs in which dollars generated in one have ripple effects of 15-25 percent in the other. We know from practical experience that when a core city declines, its suburbs follow. Sadly, in Michigan our response to core city degradation has been to create protectionist policies that insulate neighbors from the inevitable impact of decline rather than embracing metropolitan programs that recognize our essential interdependency.

These are the hard questions that are facing our region today. Call it an urban agenda, a blueprint for economic revival, or a plan for 21st century sustainability, all of the region’s leaders are beginning to understand that systemic change is an absolute necessity if we are going to thrive in the new economy that is being thrust on us. Other MetroMode bloggers have articulated the dynamic opportunity before us: 

Jacob Corvidae’s call for an energy revolution,

Lizabeth Ardisana’s plea for pragmatic action,

Kerry and Bryce Moore’s transformational plan for sustainable manufacturing,

John Austin reminding us that we’re just one of many loops on the rust belt . . 

This week, I’ll try to add the small-city component to their thoughts in what is obviously becoming a consensus call for change.

No city or suburb can offer everything to all of its residents, especially in this rapidly globalizing world, so it behooves us to better understand how we can work together to strengthen the vitality of true urban communities in Michigan.

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