Jeremy Peters has the kind of cool downtown job others long for. He's Ghostly International's Director of Licensing and Publishing. He also has strong opinions about how Ann Arbor views its downtown and the importance of arts and culture. So, guess what he'll be blogging about?
Jeremy Peters - Post No 2: The tale of two (or more) downtowns
It's always seemed curious to me that we have about four downtown areas in the city. Something must have happened on the way to the planning committee. Each has their own flavor and individual vibrancy, but what seems to be lacking is a connection between them.
As such, we have upwards of 4 different associations in town to represent each downtown's concern. Add to the pile the developmental and business interests of the University (almost in and of itself its own downtown) and what we have is a loose network, when everything screams to me that these areas should be sharing resources and connecting to become one cohesive unit.
Perhaps it's only a matter of how it feels, and not how things actually interact. I do know that the A2D2 (Ann Arbor Discovering Downtown) initiative is working on some of these issues, and while the A2D2 process is still in the works, my gut tells me we need to do more. From a business standpoint, my sense tells me that these Street associations could easily band together and work to push for zoning changes and general code changes that could benefit our downtowns for the better, and make the city seem more cohesive all the while.
Policywise, I think it would make sense for the city (essentially those voters living within the city) to consider adding another Ward that essentially encompasses these downtowns. The citizens who live in these areas, from student renter to property owner I feel are a tad underrepresented by the current council Wards. While the city charter states that each ward should be pieshaped "so as to make each ward a very rough cross section of the community population from the center outward", in fact, this process tends to give us districts that end up under representing the greater downtowns, and disproportionally representing the outer edges of the city*. Doing so would likely result in adding two brand new council seats to the current 10 that already exist.
The current Wards work, but work ineffectively. The voices of the residents, businesses, property owners of our downtowns are divided between multiple council members, making each member only partially responsible to hearing the concerns of the downtown areas that provide services and drive the economy of our city.
It makes more sense to me that consolidating the areas (by a small portion, mind you) that each council member has to represent will help those elected officials better represent the citizens and property owners they are elected to represent. Our current wards are confusing to citizens of the downtown, and probably even more so to businesses who may be interested in moving into our city when the economy turns around. They too want to know whom to turn to when they need help, and above all else, this should be the job of the council to do as an elected city representative.
To make the point clearer, I feel like some of the problems the city faces in having the University engage meaningfully with the city stems from the current districting. Given that the University doesn't have to play along (as it is given eminent domain in Michigan's Constitution), perhaps consolidating a good part of it under one council Ward roof could at least help them. Furthermore, it gives more of a voice to those students who live here and want to be part of the community. As you might guess, I was one of these kids, but as I moved around and lived in Student Housing, my council district changed all the time.
I know it might seem outwardly frightening to those who begrudgingly deal with the University's presence in the city - as this opens the door wide open for a University student to be elected to city council, but perhaps stop and take a look at the benefits that could be reaped: A direct link between the University, it's student population (which does make up a large number of individuals), and the city government.
Add to this the benefit of homeowners, renters, property owners, and business owners in our downtowns having a direct representative to air their concerns to and I feel the benefits begin to outweigh the problems and struggle needed to consider such a proposal.
Lastly, it would provide a single ward to address the problems in the "student ghetto". Given a bit more structure as a community, this heavily student area would have a voice to turn to in the city, and be represented in one single ward, hopefully resulting in increased participation in that same community, meanwhile giving non studen community members and homeowners who aren't pleased with the problems in these areas a strengthened voice on council and council members who will more directly understand the issues of absentee landlords, trash, and parking that plague these neighborhoods.
I'll be the first to admit this would likely be an enormous undertaking, but perhaps as new census data comes to us in 2010, we can begin to look at this process a little more in-depth. Such a change would necessitate changes to the City's charter and collecting just over 5,300 signatures to do so. I'm willing to bet there's at least that many people who are interested in having their individual ward more directly represent their individual neighborhood and who are interested in having a more cohesive downtown.
*As it stands now, most of the downtowns and University area sit in the 1st Ward, while chunks fall to the 5th (Main St. south of Huron), 3rd and 4th (Packard St. depending on which side you're on, and S. State St. in the 5 corners area where Packard St., State St., and Hill St. convolve), and to a small degree, the 2nd even.