WELCOME TO ANN ARBOR CITY POLITICS THUNDERDOME
I quit playing video games so much this summer and I have definitely not improved my life by reading a bunch of MLive stuff. To my horror, it dawned on me that I was now a Person who had Opinions about Local Politics. The memorial service for my youth is scheduled for about five years ago.
I can think of no revenge better than trying to inflict this curse on others. I'll be less lonely during the next full moon if there are some dudes in "A More Perfect Union" T-shirts at the library as we have impassioned discussions about pedestrian safety. Also it's actually a very important time to get an opinion, city-wise.
But just in case here's a super super early jump.
[After THE JUMP: abandon all hope ye who enter here]
MY GOD IT'S AN OVERVIEW OF ANN ARBOR POLITICS
[Full disclosure: Rishi Narayan, one of the owners of UGP, is on the DDA. This post doesn't discuss the DDA.
First Martin is one of the sponsors of this blog. Despite that this post will advocate for a hotel that will compete with the Residence Inn Ann Arbor Downtown. This post has not been cleared, or even discussed, with First Martin. Sponsoring MGoBlog is fun and comes with no surprises.
As far as my personal views, I was quite libertarian and dead center left/right on that political compass thing when I took it. I am not a registered anything. This should give everyone sufficient reason to hate me.]
Ann Arbor's political scene is at once obvious and nonsensical. Despite being the sort of town in which a Republican has the same shot at winning an election as Rich Rodriguez, Ann Arbor is one of just three Michigan municipalities to have partisan elections. This means almost all of the action takes place during the August primary, which is forthcoming. The sitting councilmember in Ward 2 is an independent and will run in November; everything else is more or less decided in two weeks. (Compounding the bizarre electoral setup: this is an odd year election. Ann Arbor recently changed their setup from two year terms to four; this is the last odd-year election.)
That's the nonsensical part. The obvious part is that Ann Arbor's local government is overrun with folks who pass ordinances requiring closed captioning for public televisions without pausing to consider how often those televisions have the sound up. (Basically never.) Or reaffirming their belief in the Paris Accord, which thanks I guess? They just released drawings of a proposed 60 million dollar "urban trail" that covers all of three miles. Moving forward on this was a unanimous vote. They expected the U would be an enthusiastic participant; they are not. Meanwhile significant sections of Ann Arbor roadways are indistinguishable from Kandahar.
It's Leslie Knopes all the way down. There's a lot of virtue signaling about stuff that's either so negligible it shouldn't be talked about at all (closed captioning on muted TVs) or vastly out of the scope of local government (climate change). I imagine this is all but universal in local governance. It grinds my gears nonetheless.
Without traditional parties to fall back on, battle lines are clearest and most consistent when it comes to development. Team Developer has been on top for most of the last 15 years. They have eight seats on the council including the mayor. Team Stasis has three seats. Certain things need an 8-3 supermajority to pass, so things are balanced on a knife edge.
The approximate teams follow. Folks up for re-election are in bold.
- Christopher Taylor, Mayor
- Jason Frenzel, Ward 1
- Kirk Westphal, Ward 2
- Zachary Ackerman, Ward 3
- Julie Grand, Ward 3
- Graydon Krapohl, Ward 4
- Chip Smith, Ward 5
- Chuck Warpehoski, Ward 5
- Sumi Kailasapathy, Ward 1
- Jane Lumm, Ward 2
- Jack Eaton, Ward 4
Three of the four races being contested in August are explicitly about development. In three-minute introductory videos hosted by CTV, opponents of Frenzel, Ackerman, and Smith all immediately call out the current council for approving tall buildings downtown, with a particular focus on the 17-story hotel-condo-retail building the council approved on the "library lot" just north of the (yep) library downtown. The fourth race, between Eaton and Jamie Magiera, is less clearly pitched in those terms. Magiera has said he would have voted against the Library Lot. On the other hand, Eaton seems to vote against development more consistently than anyone else running for council.
This is all you get to vote on in Ann Arbor right now. You get foof and development or foof and less development. Even if there were other things to vote on, increasing housing availability (of any variety) in Ann Arbor is vastly more important than all other issues combined. So I'm going to recommend you vote for development.
That means you should vote for Frenzel, Ackerman, Smith, or (less so) Magiera on August 8th.
Here are some words justifying that.
HOT BUTTON ISSUES
this, or a slightly larger park
DEVELOPMENT. Ann Arbor is a very nice place to live, as magazines and websites and home prices keep reminding us. You can't throw an award in this town without hitting another award. The inevitable result: Ann Arbor will grow up, or it will grow out. Preventing high-density housing sends Ann Arbor down the same path San Francisco took some decades ago and will result in the same astronomical prices. This process is already well underway. Average home prices jumped an astounding 11% last year.
Ann Arbor prices have always been out of whack for a Midwestern college town. Almost literally everyone I know who has come to town in the last 20 years has struggled with sticker shock, including myself. Many have relocated to Ypsi because they more or less have to. These people should be part of the future of the city but cannot afford to live in it.
This is in part because there was a near-total cessation of high-density development for 30 years. That started to change about ten years ago and in the last five things have kicked into high gear. This is a good thing. The main problem with the pace of development in Ann Arbor is it is still far short of what's needed to meet demand. Two new dorms and several student-oriented high-rises added about 4000 new beds downtown; this merely kept pace with Michigan's expanding enrollment. Every high rise that goes up immediately fills up. The home buying market is brutal. The rental market is brutal, with renewals expected a few months into year-long leases.
Denying the fact that Ann Arbor will change with weak appeals to parking, traffic, and floodplain development is pure NIMBYism and should be rejected out of hand. Keeping Ann Arbor "funky" or "unique," which seems to be the main goal cited by development opponents, is 1) impossible and 2) detrimental to everyone in the community who isn't already locked into a mortgage they intend to keep until they die.
That's me, now, but getting there was a near thing. We put in an above-asking offer with 20% down and had our offer accepted a day before two higher offers—one 50k higher—were put in. I shudder to think what would have happened if our trigger finger was insufficiently itchy. And this was four years ago. The market has only gotten more vicious since.
Opposing development is selfish, often explicitly:
We have often thought our city to be rather special, in a community-supportive, casually fun but also fairly intellectual, colorful but not in an overly contrived sort of way. See our post, What Does it Mean to be an Ann Arbor Townie. In other words, a city to serve its citizens and welcome visitors on our own terms. [bold mine]
It is elitist (see above). It is inefficient. It excludes renters and condo-buyers from "the community." It forces longer commutes and robs Ann Arbor of tax revenue it badly needs because the university is exempt. Great swathes of the community are housing insecure because of a failure to build. Almost literally every service worker in town can't live in it. Solutions other than letting people build stuff are unicorn fairy dust.
This is the single most important issue facing the city today. Build.
THE LIBRARY LOT ITSELF. The alternative to the proposed development: a park. On top of a parking structure. That was reinforced so that a big building could go on top of it. Dirt, on concrete. Roots gradually growing into said concrete. If there was any thought that that lot should be open green space downtown it flew the coop once the garage was approved ten years ago. Also the proposed development has a public green space barely smaller than the park the lot could awkwardly accommodate—one maintained by the developer, not the city.
Tree Town Down has a level-headed and comprehensive explanation of the situation:
The root of the issue for me comes down to the public space and economics. The library lot isn’t that big, it has a parking garage below it and assorted ramps, elevators and stairwells. It can support a fairly small park that’s really more of a plaza as it’s not built to accommodate large trees or heavy sod and plantings. I’ve advocated for a downtown park in the past, we could use a public commons space in Ann Arbor, but if you’re thinking of this as a central park with all the amenities we need, I’m sorry to disappoint. This is more of an urban plaza, a little larger than Liberty Plaza around the corner which is just over 10,000 square feet. As such, with the Core Proposal you get up to $15 million dollars in a one time payment and up to $3 million per year in property taxes plus a 12,000 square foot park/plaza! The alternative is no money to the city and a 16,600 square foot park/plaza! Money certainly isn’t everything but those economics are tough to ignore. Think about our school, infrastructure and affordable housing needs.
Read that whole thing. I also recommend councilmember Chuck Warpehoski's post on his vote. The only reason to oppose the library lot development is a fear of tall buildings and people living close to their jobs downtown. (Two-thirds of Ann Arbor workers commute in from outside the city.) This is a critical election because either this large, very very useful building will go in or not.
Barracuda Networks is going to hire 120-some engineers. They are coming. They could live downtown. Or they could increase traffic and home prices.
the correct building already exists
THE TRAIN STATION. OTOH, mayoral detractors are right about this one. This is the worst thing the mayor's faction is currently doing. Ann Arbor has a train station. It is a box protected from the elements, and is totally sufficient to meet rail transit needs. Nobody ever transfers, so there are no layovers. You either get on the train, or get off it and go into the city.
For some reason the mayor is trying to hammer through approval for a 50 million dollar replacement for this train station. The justification is a ludicrous study asserting that Amtrak ridership will increase almost tenfold by 2030. (It's down almost 20% in the last four years and has been basically flat for a decade.) This assumed the RTA millage would pass. It did not. It also made a brazillion other assumptions that fly in the face of the uniformly dismal history of light rail.
Hypothetically up to 80% of the money for this will come from the federal government, which means that Ann Arbor will only be paying ten million dollars for a form of transit that will be obliterated by automated driving within 15 years. If they get the money, which is questionable.
Compounding the dodginess of this situation is the council's refusal to be transparent about why they are pursuing a useless building. Councilmembers seeking re-election in this cycle broke down along "party" lines on that vote. If there was any way to signal a desire for development but not a train station I would enthusiastically recommend it. There is not.
THE URBAN TRAIL. I don't think you can vote against this? It wasn't even a part of the candidate forum. : /
AFFORDABLE HOUSING. This is distinct from Section 8 housing, which is aimed at the poor. Generally when people talk about affordable housing in Ann Arbor they're talking about workforce housing.
It makes sense that people should live close to where they work, but the simple fact that convenient land in Ann Arbor costs a fortune makes addressing affordability directly all but impossible on a large scale. A recent affordable redevelopment checked in at 320k per unit, which is higher than the average home sale in town. The city is currently putting 400k annually towards affordable housing.
Ann Arbor is mostly accomplishing what minor progress they make by paying developers to include some less than market price options in new buildings. A proposed condo development near the hospital will get a couple million dollars in property tax forgiveness to build 15 units priced for folks with at most 60% of the local median income; the DDA is forking over a similar amount so that the Library Lot development will have a similar subset of affordable housing.
This is fine, I guess, but 15 units here and 15 units there isn't going to dent demand for low-cost housing in Ann Arbor. There are few ideas other than throwing a little cash at developers to create a subset of low-income earners who get a golden ticket. Chip Smith, an urban planner, is the only councilmember who's suggested something concrete and potentially workable:
“The reason that there’s such an emphasis and such a focus on people building bigger buildings with more density downtown is that’s the only place that we let them do that,” he said.
“One of the things that we have to do a much better job of is figuring out how to provide housing that’s close to jobs, have more dense housing in places where it’s appropriate," Smith added. “So one of the things that we’ve been working on, or at least that I’ve been talking with some of my colleagues about, is the idea of a transit-oriented development overlay district at South State and Eisenhower, which is a major job center. And to put a lot of housing units there, you know, removes some of the pressure on downtown.”
Picking a couple transit corridors and blanketing them with 1) dense housing and 2) even more transit is the best bet for actually affordable Ann Arbor housing.
CLIMATE CHANGE. Climate change is a fact. It is also caused by the great sweep of history; nothing a single municipality does will affect it meaningfully either way. Ann Arbor should change its property tax code to exempt solar panels until they've paid for themselves and focus on things local governments can accomplish. This may not be possible under state law unless Ann Arbor gets creative. Try to get creative, and leave solar to private individuals. Again, I don't think there's a way to vote for this without submarining development.
THE FRANKENMILLAGE. The county's planning to put an unholy Frankenstein millage on the ballot this fall. Half of it would go to mental health services the state has cut back. Half would go to county police deputies, which is thinly justified because cops have to deal with mentally ill people. Places with their own police departments would get a refund, which the city council believes they can spend however they want.
In a perfect distillation of the foof aspects of local governance, the council passed a resolution stating they'd use the money thusly:
- 20% for pedestrian safety. The city has adopted a goal of zero pedestrian fatalities by 2025. Advances in technology will do most of this for the city without anyone lifting a finger. Meanwhile it is unclear that any attempted remediation by the city will have an impact on a death rate of less than one per year. Vision Zero's purported successes in New York are stat-juking that tries to piggy-back on normal regression to the mean.
- 40% for affordable housing, about which see above.
- 40% for climate change. See above.
Whether or not this is a breach of civic obligation or not, your imperative as a voter is clear: reject this and make the county come back with a single-purpose millage, not this rotting mess of priorities stuck together to terrify the villagers.
DEER CULL. Ann Arbor is home to an increasing deer population. Deer are large rats that destroy landscaping, carry ticks, get hit by vehicles, and taste good. Cull them. At present there is little controversy about this outside of one "Deer Lives Matter" MLive commenter. In 2015 Mayor Taylor cast a solitary vote against the cull. Everyone else was in favor.
Part two will be a drill-down into the individual council races that will unsurprisingly conclude that you should vote for the four names bolded above.