Guest Blogger: Joan Lowenstein

Joan Lowenstein moved to Ann Arbor from Miami, Florida 28 years ago when her husband joined the faculty at the University of Michigan’s Kellogg Eye Center. A lawyer and journalist, Lowenstein taught a UM undergraduate course on First Amendment law and practices with Jaffe, Raitt, Heuer, & Weiss on Main Street in the First National Building. She served four terms on City Council, representing Ward 2, was a planning commissioner, and now serves on the board of the DDA. Her blog about Ann Arbor politics and people is

Why Downtown Ann Arbor's Gain is Not the City Neighborhoods' Loss

I recently read a book review by NYU law professor Kenji Yoshino, who noted, "if you cannot control the important, you make important what you can control." He was talking about the arcane world of legal citations, but I think the statement also gives insight into what both drives and stalls political opinions about Downtown development.

Some local Ann Arbor politicians have taken to politicizing the Downtown Development Authority and Downtown in general. It's Downtown versus the neighborhoods, they say, and we are spending far too much money and energy on the Downtown. One solution seems to have been adding board member term limits to the ordinance that governs the DDA – making important what you can control, in other words.

The implication that resources spent improving the Downtown are resources subtracted from other parts of the city is false. First of all, Downtown is a neighborhood. Many of us work Downtown and more and more people are living Downtown. Old-school zoning has made it so that, for the most part, residential neighborhoods can only be residential. If you want a corner grocery store or neighborhood pub, you probably have to live downtown because those types of businesses don't fit into residential zoning – except in the Downtown. So it makes sense for surrounding neighborhoods to be connected to Downtown.

Downtown is a great laboratory where we experiment with ideas that later spread to the rest of the community. We have tried out LED streetlights, a permeable storm water infiltration pilot at the old YMCA lot, portable bike racks, and discounts for energy audits; all great ideas that are now evident all over Ann Arbor. Money spent Downtown is not subtracted from other areas, it is added to the common good.

The other neighborhoods – and even surrounding communities – are woven together with Downtown in a virtual tapestry. Ypsilanti can be to Ann Arbor Downtown as Brooklyn is to Manhattan. The AirRide can zip us from Downtown to Detroit Metro. An important message here is that transportation is the key to joining and equalizing cities and neighborhoods within a city.

Ann Arbor is not the only place that experiences turf battles but it is a little unusual to have those battles in such a small space. Bigger cities have begun to address connections between neighborhoods that have sometimes been cut off from each other by emphasizing methods of transportation, both new and old. Cincinnati is re-creating its streetcar system, even after voting in an anti-streetcar mayor. A downtown streetcar in Atlanta will connect historic neighborhoods. Chicago and San Francisco are adding bike lanes and Washington, D.C. is expanding its bike share program. Portland is building two miles of sidewalk to improve an area known for danger to pedestrians. Houston is building biking and walking paths to connect their existing park system.

The DDA is about to begin a Street Framework project that will identify better street, sidewalk, and bike lane configurations – not just to benefit Downtown but to benefit the city by improving connections to and from Downtown neighborhoods. It doesn't make sense to create false rivalries when there is so much to gain from directing political energy towards common goals. 
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