Blog: Patrick McCauley

With strip malls and big-box manses gettin' way long in the tooth, bygone architecture is the mod new style. Patrick McCauley, vice-chair of the Ann Arbor Historic District Commission, believes local historic districts are what's needed for more vibrant communities.

Post 2: Historic Neighborhoods, NIMBYs, and the Fleeing Young Professionals

Apparently there is a huge divide between what the "young professionals" want for the city of Ann Arbor, and what the older, more established residents (old professionals???) want.  I've read it in Concentrate and I've heard our city leaders express it too.  Who knew?  I thought that we lived in the most hip, vibrant, diverse, and economically prosperous city in Michigan?!!  Ann Arbor is always ranked as one of the top places to live in America.  We're the home of cutting edge start-up companies, great bars and restaurants, interesting shops and galleries, the Art Fair, and of course the University of Michigan, and all of the arts, music, sports and jobs that come with it.  I keep thinking, who wouldn't want to live here?!!  It seems like there's a little bit for everybody.  I keep hearing about the importance of attracting "young professionals" with more urban density in our city and state as a way of reversing our dismal economic fortunes.  While I'm sure that attracting "young professionals" is a good thing, I'm not sure if more urban density is what is going to attract them.  If you build a bunch of dense, urban lofts, will they really come to live here?  Is a vibrant, urban lifestyle really what is lacking in Ann Arbor?  If so, I wasn't aware of it.

Wikipedia defines a "young professional" as "a young person not in school who is employed in a profession or white-collar occupation." I would like to think of myself as one of these "young professionals".  I'm college educated, have a good paying job, and I'm relatively young (though now that I'm 33 years old, I may be considered a "youngish professional").  I guess the only difference between myself and these other "young professionals" is that I didn't leave the state of Michigan following college.  Adding it up in my head right now, I would say that just over half of my good friends from high school and college left Michigan following their graduation from college.  This seems to line up with the statistics for the state as a whole.  I suppose the reason they left the state is what our elected leaders are worried about.  A small number of my friends wanted to live in a big city like Chicago or New York.   Some left because they just wanted to get away from home and see something new.  However, the majority left because they found jobs in other states.  

Is it our lack of a hip, dense, urban lifestyle that has been causing young people to leave the state, or is it our decade-long recession caused primarily by the decline of the auto industry?  If you guessed it is our lack of a hip, dense, and urban lifestyle, you're wrong.  This might be the case in Troy or Canton, but in my opinion, Ann Arbor already has everything a "young professional" could want, including low unemployment, modestly priced houses, good city services, wonderful parks, and a beautiful and lively downtown.

Of all of the people I know that might be considered "young professionals", I've only known one that has lived in an urban loft or high rise.  Ironically, he and his girlfriend just moved to California because of a job change.  Every other "young professional" that I know lives in a house, with a yard, in a semi-dense urban choice!  Even my friends that have moved to Chicago live in houses with yards and gardens.  Perhaps I'm just not rubbing elbows with enough of these young, hip, urban professionals?  With that in mind, I asked my twin brother how many "young professionals" he knows who live in dense, urban housing like lofts or highrises?  He lives in Detroit, is quite a bit "hipper" than I, and is more in touch with what kind of housing the "young professionals" of Detroit, Ferndale and Royal Oak are choosing.  Out of the hundred or so 20-and 30-somethings he knows in the Detroit area, he could think of only three or four that live in urban style lofts or highrises.  "Most people want a yard and a garden" was his response.  

No doubt there are plenty of "young professionals" who do want to live in lofts and highrises in the downtown core of our cites.  This is good news for downtown Ann Arbor and for these young urban dwellers, as there are many of these types of buildings that have already been built and/or renovated downtown, with more in the pipeline.  Problems arise when developers and our city leaders propose to tear down portions of near-downtown neighborhoods to build dense urban developments that belong downtown, not near-downtown.  This is when the sparks really start to fly!  

The neighbors opposing these oversized developments have been called NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard), which is fitting because they literally don't want a giant highrise in the backyards of their modest houses!  Who can blame them?  If I lived in one of these near-downtown neighborhoods, invested my financial resources into my house, and invested my time and effort into making one of these neighborhoods a great place to live, I would raise "holy hell" if Heritage Row or The Moravian were proposed for my block.  This attitude is not anti-development – it is anti-dense development where it doesn't belong.  The battle over the Moravian and Heritage Row projects has been fierce because they simply don't belong in near-downtown neighborhoods.  This is in stark contrast to the recent proposal for the downtown Zaragon Place II on William Street, which was highly popular, even among NIMBYs like myself.

Another reason I'm skeptical of these dense urban developments is that Ann Arbor is basically a company town.  As of January, the University of Michigan employed 26,241 people and the U of M Medical Center employed another 21,271 people.  The next two largest employers on the list are Trinity Health, with 7,257 employees, and the Ann Arbor Public Schools, with 2,659 employees.  Additionally, as of the fall of 2010, the University of Michigan enrolled 41,924 students.  This doesn't take anything away from the great start-ups and smaller companies in town who are undoubtedly in search of talented "young professionals" for their workforce.  I'm just pointing out the fact that the economics of Ann Arbor and the county are driven primarily by the U of M, as are the types of buildings being proposed for downtown and near-downtown.  So, when these large developments are being marketed to the community as a way of attracting "young professionals" to our downtown and near-downtown neighborhoods, we should be very skeptical.  Most of them are being built as private dorms to house the 41,924 rowdy students who need a place to live and drink.  Besides, how many "young professionals" who are making $35,000-$40,000 a year can afford a $500,000 loft or a $1,000 per-bedroom, per-month apartment?  You'd need to be a college student from a wealthy family to afford that!

The good news is we can have it both ways.  In our new developments downtown, we need to encourage density and build taller buildings where appropriate and possible, and hope that professionals of all ages will choose to live downtown.  At the same time, we need to protect the parts of our downtown that are already great, as well as our existing near-downtown neighborhoods.  I think that if we really want keep our community lively and prosperous, we need to continue to ensure that it's a great place to live for everyone.  

When I look at my own Northside Ann Arbor neighborhood, the formula for what makes our city a great place seems to be working.  There will always be bumps in the road, such as the proposed mixed-use development called Broadway Village, which will hopefully be built someday soon, though I'm not holding my breath!  In my neighborhood, there are contemporary urban style apartments in a wonderful reuse of the Suzuki Building on Pontiac Trail, as well as townhouse-style condos on Maiden Lane.  The university keeps adding jobs at the Kellogg Eye Center and Mott Children's Hospital.  Surrounding these high-density developments are wonderful neighborhoods with tree lined streets and beautiful older homes, including the newly protected Broadway Historic District, not to mention Ann Arbor's most forward-looking accomplishments – our amazing urban parks!  Argo Park, Bandemer Park, and the Huron River, along with my personal favorite, the Bird Hills Nature Area, are an oasis in a sea of cars and people.  

In addition, my neighbors are exactly the types of people Ann Arbor needs to attract!  There are so many "young professionals" that live near my house who are choosing to put down roots and start families in the city.  These new families fit in seamlessly with the older residents, some of whom have been here for over 50 years, as well as the multitude of students who are only renting for a year at a time.  This mix is what makes Ann Arbor a vibrant and exciting place to live.  Some change is inevitable, but here in Ann Arbor, we don't need to reinvent the wheel.  We're rolling along just fine.