Bridging The Generational Divide Over Downtown

"In Michigan and in Ann Arbor, we hate two things: we hate density and we hate sprawl. We've gotta figure out which side we want to be on," says Dan Gilmartin, executive director of the Michigan Municipal League. Addressing the packed screening room at the Michigan Theater for the first Concentrate Speaker Series program: "Downtown Development: A Generational Divide" last Thursday he jokes: "This isn't a vote on health care, for God's sake. We've got to take a side."

Nearly 150 clap and cheer, but this issue couldn't be more serious. Is Ann Arbor a desirable place for young talent? Who decides the look and feel of a downtown? Is there a generation gap?

Gilmartin argues, "…I'm not sure that it is necessarily a generational divide, it's almost a cultural divide." He cites the transformation of London, selected by Fast Company magazine in 2008 as the best city to do business in, as a place Ann Arbor could learn from.

"London's creative resurgence is rooted in the city's changing sense of itself," he says. In a city that is adding 150,000 residents per year and where 70 percent of its population is under age 45, one out of every eight residents work in a creative field. Within 10 years, he says, employment in the creative industry is expected to outpace that in financial services, its traditional powerhouse. In comparison to the rest of Michigan, "I think Ann Arbor leads the way in terms of changing itself, thinking of itself a little bit differently. Again, we need to be thinking the same way London is thinking."

The 78 million-strong Millennial generation, age 20-35, is the most entrepreneurial group standing right now, Gilmartin explains. And they're "looking for an urban experience. We don't offer that enough here in Michigan."
And today's mentality is the reverse of a generation ago. Young people choose place and lifestyle first, then worry about a job. "I heard someone the other day say, 'It's no longer the corporate ladder that people climb. It's corporate rock climbing.'"

He makes a case for the average college grad that purportedly waits 10 years to get married and goes out twice a week. This equates to 1,000 nights on the town. "Is there 1,000 nights of fun in Ann Arbor?"
he asks an amused audience. "You're laughing, but that's an economic question… Because those bright, talented, entrepreneurial people, if they get to 200 nights and run out of something to do, they're gone." That's why, he points out, the University of Michigan and Michigan State now have their largest alumni associations in Chicago.

"Sixty million people around the world move to cities every year. A city larger than Detroit is popping up on the map somewhere every week. We're under-investing in the places that matter most," Gilmartin emphasizes. "Remember that – place attracts people. That's the important thing to go home with."

The panelists say...

Concentrate also sought four area professionals who represent both ends of the generational spectrum to weigh in on issues of downtown development and density: Anya Dale,
an economic development and energy specialist with Washtenaw County; former Ypsilanti city planner Richard Murphy, who is now the transportation program coordinator at the Michigan Suburbs Alliance; 50-year downtown resident Ray Detter, chair of the Downtown Area Citizens Advisory Council; and Alice J. Ralph, an architect and civic activist in Ann Arbor.

The discussion centered around the following questions: Can a community preserve some of its heritage while evolving to allow a diversity of housing options to attract young professionals to Ann Arbor's core? And how?

Only about two percent of Ann Arbor's population, or roughly 2,000 people, live downtown. But plans are afoot, Detter says, to house 6,000 people in Ann Arbor's downtown. At the same time, he says that growth should not encroach on the historic character of neighborhoods on the periphery. Therein lies the rub. At meetings, "The words we hear are not just character, but scale and character… I don't feel a major resistance to density," he adds.
He cites the Central Area Plan, which covers the area adjacent to downtown. "That doesn't mean you can't change things within it, but it has to fit somehow into the nature of what those neighborhoods are, because those neighborhoods are just as much a prize in this town as is the downtown itself, with regards to the nature of what it is that we are as a community."

Okay, but is this development inviting to potential residents of all ages? And will constraining growth to a finite core realistically address the sprawl that will accompany the 30,000 people expected to move into Washtenaw County by 2035?

"It's not a generational thing," Dale says, explaining that many of her young friends have moved away. She agrees with Gilmartin. People of all ages just want a variety of choices convenient to transportation and/or the city's core, the former planner for Washtenaw County argues. Much of the housing stock in the immediate downtown area is either pricey townhouses or high-value rental properties. Finding near-downtown places unaffordable, she moved to a home on a cul-de-sac, which "for a planner is what you don't do."

According to SEMCOG forecasts, Ann Arbor's population will grow only about .4 percent, or about 500 people by 2035, at the same time adding up to 18,000 jobs in a city with limited affordable housing options. So is sprawl inevitable?

Michigan is a leader in sprawl, Ralph says. "It's among the top three sprawling states. This is part of the gloom and doom we live with."

We're always talking density vs. sprawl, but there's a lot in between, Murphy says. "We don't have to be a single downtown surrounded by a haze of sprawl."

Take the underutilized Ypsilanti-Washtenaw corridor. Dale sees a potential second downtown on Washtenaw Avenue, one of middle density and mixed use. "It's about linking a variety of housing types near a variety of transportation options," she envisions.

Richard adds, "We don't need all the options in one place if you can get quickly and easily in between places." He calls for bus rapid transit and inter-city transit. Right now, he laments, it takes 45 minutes to get from Ann Arbor's downtown to Ypsilanti's downtown.

All agree that better transportation is key to developing a more diverse downtown and, possibly, satellite hubs that build upon existing infrastructure. Most importantly, everyone should get there in one piece. "I wish we could all get along," Dale sums it up. "Everything's controversial in Ann Arbor."

Tanya Muzumdar is the assistant editor of Metromode. She is also a regular contributor to Concentrate. Her last article was DoubleLives: Josh Weston.

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