Blog: Richard 'Murph' Murphy

How do we build a local knowledge-based economy? Richard 'Murph'  Murphy has a few ideas... and they're not what you might expect. Murph is an urban planner for the City of Ypsilanti, seasoned blogger and U-M grad who was recently profiled as one of Concentrate's "masterminds."

Richard 'Murph' Murphy - Post 4

 I can't possibly avoid talking about Pfizer here, can I? No - it's what everyone else is talking about, and, besides, is just too prime an example.

As I mentioned a few days back, we keep on looking for "The Next Pfizer", as if the next one will somehow be unable to leave like the last did. When we find something big, we grasp onto it desperately, with headlines blaring 2,000 NEW JOBS TO COME. Now, I apologize, I can be a little dense at times, but - didn't we just lose those 2,000 jobs when Pfizer closed? So, couldn't "new jobs" be kind of a misleadingly optimistic phrase, when what we mean is "replacement jobs"?  (And, I admit that I'm no insider, but I have a suspicion that the University would have been adding jobs over the next several years regardless of what they did with the Pfizer building, so can these jobs really even be considered a result of the Pfizer site buy?)

I don't want to be completely grouchy about this. I think it's excellent that something is happening with the Pfizer site, and that Ann Arbor as a community has these institutions like UMichigan (and Eastern, and Trinity/St. Joes, and WCC) that are large and stable enough to step in occasionally and completely change the terms of the conversation. I'm happy that Washtenaw County is a sticky enough place that a number of former Pfizer employees have chosen to stay and start or join companies rather than leave with Pfizer - that shows we're doing something right from a quality of place standpoint, and also genuinely constitutes "new jobs".

But that doesn't negate the fact that Pfizer could and did pack up and unilaterally eliminate 2,000 jobs in town in a matter of months, followed by, with the sale to UMichigan, 4-5% of the city's tax base, several million dollars a year suddenly gone from the City, County, libraries, community college, and Michigan's schools.

So let's cheer UMichigan's purchase of Pfizer's campus - they're getting it back to productive use, they're leverage it as an asset for job creation, they're preventing it from being simply a hole in the community (or from Pfizer razing the buildings to cut their tax liability, depriving us of both the revenues and the use value of the facilities). But let's not overlook the stiff upper lips that Mayor Hieftje and County Administrator Guenzel are bringing to the discussions.  Wouldn't we all be happier if we hadn't had to suffer the loss of a monolithic employer and taxpayer for this to happen, if UMichigan were adding those jobs on the vast tracts of North Campus it already owns, while a constellation of smaller businesses suffered job losses by the tens or twenties, but never 2,000 at a time?

This issue of exposure, of too many eggs in the Pfizer basket, is still a problem that we need to recognize - and a problem that we need to buffer ourselves against in the future.

Meanwhile, I can't resist talking about built form and its relationship to human community. (Remember: urban planner.) Having spent 6-plus years of work and school on North Campus, I can clearly say that this is not an area that innately fosters innovation and creativity - it fails to provide the physical space and proximity for collaboration 
and the resulting sparking of new ideas that we need.

Douglas Kelbaugh, until recently Dean of the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, has long talked this point.  In 2002, during the North Campus Redux project, he noted, "We need more destinations. We need places to have a date, places to have a drink." It's not just dates. It's places to meet up, talk, work, collaborate, and spark chance inspirations. 

Six years later, I still don't think North Campus has a bar, and Plymouth Road is still a pretty unpleasant place to be outside of a car. I therefore don't have too much hope that UMichigan's purchase of Pfizer's land will do much for placemaking, for turning Plymouth Road into a place where people can have ideas outside of the cloistered campus buildings - but I'm willing to be pleasantly surprised.