Exit Interview Part Two: Mayor John Hieftje

As Ann Arbor mayor John Hieftje prepares to end a 14-year term in office, Concentrate spoke with the city's longest serving leader for a two-part exit interview. In part one, Hieftje discussed his time in office and his plans for his final months. In this second installment, we asked the mayor about the long-term outlook for some of his political endeavors and for Ann Arbor in general.  The following has been edited for length and clarity.
One of your greatest successes was the passage of the Greenbelt millage. Why do you think the Greenbelt found such favor, especially for an unusual idea like funding land preservation outside the city? 
If you look back at the history of it, in the ‘90s the growth was in the townships around the city. Sprawl was just rampant, and fields that we had driven by for years were being turned into strip malls and subdivisions. It's hard to look back now, but sprawl was a major issue. And looking forward, it seems like only a matter of time to me before sprawl comes back. I think it'll be even closer into the city. 
If one of the rationales of the Greenbelt is to mitigate sprawl, isn't the other component greater density within Ann Arbor? 
Yeah. I don't think anybody wants Ann Arbor to turn into Austin. We really don't have the space in the city to have a big population boom. We've pretty much ended the era of student housing, and now you're talking about housing for working people and anybody who wants to live downtown. The building that just opened up at First and Washington has 15 units of affordable housing in it, workforce-type housing. So that is the future, I think. Most of downtown is not available for development. Only about 40 percent of it is because of the historic districts. Those are all going to be protected forever. 
As U-M takes more real estate off the tax rolls, are we pricing out whole populations of residents? If so, what can we do to compensate? 
The university taking land up was one of the major hurdles of the recession. When the university bought [the former Pfizer property], it was 4.8 percent of our revenue from property taxes gone at the worst time, just on the edge of the official recession. But now we just have to drive down Division where we're used to seeing Krazy Jim's, and now there's focus out there on the Edwards Brothers property. It's inevitable that there's going to be a time -- and it's already here in some ways -- when this is just totally unsustainable. You can't continue to take land off the tax rolls. The university does great things for the city. They provide a whole lot of jobs, but they don't pay taxes. So I think that they have to recognize that it is in their own best interest to do what they can, which is not take land off the tax rolls, or do something I've been trying to get them to do for a long time, but there's no legal way to force them to: they should be paying taxes on the land they take over and sending that money back to the taxing authorities. 
Why do you think pedestrian crosswalks have become such a vigorously debated issue for our community?
I can't really put my finger on it. It shouldn't be a big deal in a community like Ann Arbor. I had a visitor over Thanksgiving, one of my wife's cousins from Chicago. I was riding with her and she stopped at the crosswalk for a pedestrian. It was automatic. ‘Oh yeah, we always do this at home.' So it's a puzzle. I think some of it has to do with what [writer Jonathan Levine proposes in this column. I think that might be at the root of it, in distracted driving.
Given that you had to use your veto to stop council eliminating the requirement for drivers to stop for pedestrians waiting to enter a crosswalk, are you concerned about how the issue will change without your vote in play?
No, I'm pretty happy with the task force that I'll be naming at our next council meeting. Their mandate is to study the issue. There's absolutely no data to show that our crosswalk ordinance isn't working as intended. So I would hope that the task force would be allowed to work. 
Why are we as a community so wary of new development, and how do you think that tug-of-war between developers and longtime residents will play out in the long term? 
There's a percentage -- I have no idea what it is, maybe it's 30 percent of the people in Ann Arbor -- who really don't want anything to change. But there's resistance to development everywhere. Inherently, deep in their psychology, I think there's a lot of folks who don't like change. And yet change is what the world is about. So I don't know there's a particular answer. I think the struggle is probably always going to go on. And there's probably a healthy nature to it, in that having some push-back is a good thing.

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Metromode and Concentrate.

All photos by Doug Coombe

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