5 hard questions with Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor

In October, we began a new Q&A series by speaking with Ann Arbor resident Jeremy Wheeler about the city's future, touching on the lack of affordable housing and dwindling supporting for the arts among other concerns. As we head into a new year with a new mayor, we took some of these concerns to the man a the helm himself, Ann Arbor's Mayor Christopher Taylor. 

With some tough issues facing the city, from the practical to the philosophical, we asked Taylor some equally tough questions about how he views Ann Arbor, and how he plans to lead the city toward a future of solutions. Do the arts have a future in Ann Arbor? Will artists and the working class even be able to live here much longer? What are we going to do about Liberty Plaza?

Here's what he had to say: 

From your perspective how do we address the need for more density close to downtown when we have kind of built up to the edges of downtown, which is surrounded by historic residential neighborhoods that we don’t really want to touch?

Mayor Taylor: I'd like to dispute the premise a little bit. I don’t think there are only historic districts surrounding downtown. I think there are student areas and there are areas that are perhaps unbuildable, but it’s not all in historic districts. But the general premises is, of course, spot on, that near downtown areas have been resistant to increased density.

I think over time we have had as one of our guiding principles that density belongs downtown, and we should continue to make the downtown available for residential and implement density. I think issues of affordability are going to continue to move up on people's list of things that are concerning to them.

If you want to work on affordability, the thing that you do is try to increase supply. So, that is going to be a community conversation that we are going to continue to have. Obviously it’s going to mean that we have to continue to have this conversation without destroying the character of our near downtown neighborhoods because it is so important to the look and feel within Ann Arbor. Finding that balance is going to be what we are going to need to work on. 

Speaking of affordability, a new Washtenaw County report shows some pretty dramatic truths about how unaffordable living in Ann Arbor is for working class people. Is that the city that we want to be, in which people of a certain economic class simply can’t live here?

Taylor: The answer to that is, absolutely not. We get tremendous community value from Ann Arbor's diversity, and that includes, of course, economic diversity. It is important that people who work in Ann Arbor have an opportunity and ability to live in Ann Arbor. 

Just like any movement, it takes people getting serious about meaningful social change, it takes people working together and putting forward their ideas and building coalitions. If supply and demand is, and if we are static in supply, we assume that Ann Arbor will continue to have high demand. It will require people getting together who are interested in this value of affordability and convincing others that value of affordability is important enough to countenance change.

Supply and demand is and the increased supply downtown may not result in the building of new affordably units' downtown but it does pick up some of the demands from other parts of our city.

Ann Arbor has long thought of itself as an artsy community. But with residents voting down the art millage in 2012, city council taking money away from public art, and artists in general starting to choose Ypsilanti as a more affordable and accepting place for them to live, where does this all leave Ann Arbor? Are we not as supportive of the arts as we pretend to be?
Taylor: I am a tremendous supporter of the arts. Arts and culture are vitally important to Ann Arbor's future, and it's important to the look and feel of the community. It is important to attract and keep people of all generations here in the city.

Resources are always limited and we are always trying to balance needs with our available means to address those needs. I think that the public art battles of the great recession were of a different time. I think the city values public arts, and our community values arts and culture and the performing arts, and that we will continue to support them in years to come.

Democrats have ruled the council for some years now, and yet there are clear divisions between two factions on the council. Is everyone on council calling themselves members of the same party disingenuous? Do we really have two sets of political thought representing us that we're just not naming as such? 

Taylor:  First, we do have one member of council who is declared as Independent. I think that the party identification is important. I think the party label tells the voters something about the candidate's values set. The fact that we are all Democrats on council with one exception, I think that communicates [something] to the voters, and I think that is just right. 

I also want to fight the premise a little bit. We do not have two parties on council. We have groups of people who, on various issues, tend to be aligned with one another, and differ in the balance of issues that come before council. I don’t view it as party-driven, as faction-driven; I think it as issue-driven. 

For someone who tends to vote against, tends to vote on another side of me on an issue, I have no problem working with them on another issue. I think that’s the hallmark of a representative government. [It's not] working when people are, for institutional reasons, opposed to another representative on council. When, for institutional reasons, [people] can’t work together, that is where a two-party system breaks down and stops working for the benefit of the community. 

Is Liberty Plaza the problem that many feel it is, and, if you were given a magic wand and all the money and neighborhood cooperation you could ask for, how would you fix it? 

Taylor: Well, if people perceive it to be a problem, then it is a problem. As to the magic wand, part of the challenge is that downtown parks rise and fall based upon activation, active uses and eyes on the park.

In addition to whatever challenges are inherent to the design of Liberty Plaza, there are additional challenges by its surroundings. It’s on a corner, it's next to a building with limited-hour traffic, and on other side there is a historic district without any eyes on the streets or material foot traffic. 

Liberty Plaza is, and we need to continue to work to improve it, we need to program it and make sure that it is open and hospitable to all residents whether housed or not housed. Perfectly situated it’s not, but it’s the world we live in.

Natalie Burg is a freelance writer, development news editor for Concentrate and IMG project editor.

All photos by Doug Coombe.

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