Special Issue: Transit Corridor Development In Ann Arbor
Where Do We Go From Here?
[This essay was originally posted on Damn Arbor. You can check out their stuff here]
The dynamics of our local city council politics don’t always allow for clear communication about land use within our municipal boundaries. This essay is an #eastannarbor attempt to clear the air a bit. We want you to make up your own mind whether or not you think it is a good idea to add mixed-use, mid-rise buildings along key transit routes in our city.
What is zoning? When was it implemented in Ann Arbor and how was it used?
Zoning is a form of urban planning in which municipal areas are divided into districts. Each district is assigned a zoning category, created in municipal code, to limit/specify the buildable environment. For example, in Ann Arbor we have a lot of R1 districts. These are exclusionary single family home districts that prohibit the construction of multifamily housing (R2, R3, R4). There are also C-districts noting different types of commercial uses, PL districts noting public or parkland. The city is empowered to implement these zoning laws through the Michigan Zoning Enabling Act (MZEA). Residents are empowered to contribute to the vision for our city’s future buildable environments through the Michigan Planning Enabling Act (MPEA).
Here is the text of the MZEA. The law allows municipalities to create zoning districts that limit the types of buildings constructed, bulk and height etc. Worthy of note here is a mechanism by which adjacent neighbors near any proposed development can submit a protest petition signed by 20% of affected neighbors and bring a higher vote threshold for the rezoning ordinance to pass.
The MPEA empowers municipalities to create a planning commission, hire a planning director and to conduct comprehensive land use planning which is still referred to in the state code as “Master Plan.”
Zoning has been used with good results to prevent industrial land use near where people are living. Zoning also has a long history of being used by white supremacists to keep non-white populations out of white areas. The first zoning districts in the US were racial zoning districts, which came about at the turn of the 20th century. While these racial zoning districts were outlawed by the 1920s, their legacy and influence remained as whites in power found alternative means to exclude populations deemed undesirable by white supremacist institutions. Banks, mortgage lenders and many who benefit from privilege afforded them by skin color have used geographic economic disparities to defend their wealth. A recent study conducted by Detroit Future City, shows African American borrowers being denied at a higher rate than white counterparts.
Ann Arbor’s first zoning code passed was in 1923, however our planning department, along with the planning commission, wasn't formed until 1956. Like many other cities in the US, we used zoning, in part, to deal with the population boom in the wake of WWII.
In addition to a need for more housing, our city’s forebears also planned to accommodate the expanding automobile highway system and car travel which became the dominant mode of transportation in southeast Michigan.
In Ann Arbor, one could argue that the car-centric, single-family restricted zoning districts created housing scarcity. One of the outcomes of these policies has been gentrification in what traditionally were the areas where black residents owned homes and businesses: Kerrytown Area and the West Side, the latter of which is referred to now as “Water Hill.”
This screencap below is from “City’s Black Neighborhoods Disappearing,” by Keith A. Owens in the Ann Arbor News. Oct. 20, 1986. This is a good reminder that gentrification is the displacement of black residents from wealth and income generating opportunities. It’s also a reminder for folks that this process of gentrification took place in the wake of Ann Arbor’s policies of density limits on our buildable environment.
There is also the impact the Packard-Beakes bypass project had on black homeowners living in the area who were displaced even though the project never came to fruition.
How did we get here?
We planned for it.
We planned for the incoming freeways and made space in our city for more cars and restricted how many people could live here as demand for housing grew and population would have otherwise grown.
Flash forward to 2022 Ann Arbor and the recent blow-up we’ve seen regarding a new subdivision of 57 single family homes on a piece of land by Concordia College, recently approved by the planning commission and council. This is a good example of how we are coming to reckon with our car-centric planning history.
Some in our community have been protesting council’s decision to allow this development to proceed even though a couple hundred 50-80 year old pine trees will be clear cut to make way for the houses. The council members voting in favor of the development [Taylor, Nelson, Grand, Song, Briggs, Disch, Eyer, Radina] said they had no choice and if voted down, the developer would have legal grounds to sue the city for not following its own development code because the project meets the standards set within the code. Those opposing this development [Ramlawi, Griswold, Hayner] cite the climate emergency and loss of trees as the reason to oppose this, in a sense making the claim that the city would win any lawsuit brought against it on those grounds.
The land in question for the “Concord Pines” is zoned for single family exclusive housing which means that nothing can be built except for single family detached homes with all the lot and setback requirements.
About 70% of our residential districts are exclusive to single family detached homes. Ann Arbor has about 45% of its ~123K residents in these mostly owner-occupied homes, while 55% are renters. It would seem that, at minimum, we need to increase the areas where we allow duplexes and quads so we can increase the amount of housing available to people seeking it in our city while minimizing the spread of sprawling suburban detached single family home developments, preserving green and open spaces for common uses and recreation.
A question protesters and residents could ask: should we have single family exclusionary zoning in our residential areas inside the highway belt?
We’ve heard some claim that their experience with development in Oakland County suburbs helped them learn how to build sprawling single family home subdivisions “without disturbing natural features” that will supposedly help us better manage the effects of the increasing temperature of our planet.
The other choices we have include building more housing units within the same buildable space to get closer at meeting the demand for housing while preserving more of our “natural features.” Please note this is not calling for building in every available space, but instead, adding housing density where it makes sense to add it.
SIDENOTE: dear readers, let’s please remember that quadplexes and duplexes are not midrise, nor high rise developments. These are low rise buildings no larger than some of the more recent big footed houses that have appeared in our neighborhoods in recent years.
The Ann Arbor Area is often said to have one of the better bus systems in the southeast Michigan region that, while a low bar, is a baseline upon which we can build. From a countywide perspective, note the Federal Census makes the Ann Arbor Metro Area encompass all of Washtenaw County.
In recent years, our city and its residents and staff have already included elements of transit oriented development through updates to our comprehensive land use plan.
This “plan” is not a single document but a series of documents that have been created over time to help guide staff when making recommendations to council for adjustments to our zoning code like the State Street Corridor plan. Here is a screencap of one part of that plan which was developed in 2013:
Our AAATA bus system spans from Scio Township to the west and Ypsilanti Township, Superior Township to the east. One of the things that is often noted by people who regularly use it is the lack of frequent trips as well as a lack of equity in proliferation of services especially for those who need transportation to work in Ann Arbor, but who live in Superior or Ypsilanti Townships. This is not only a need for residents in the townships but frequent trips on our fixed routes would also improve services for existing Ann Arbor residents.
A solution to this problem is to add more residents along key transit corridors in our city. With more residents living near bus lines the AAATA could justify more investment in improving and expanding services including but not limited to bus rapid transit.
What is transit corridor development?
Transit corridors are streets that have regular mass transit service. Each stop along the corridor has a walkable radius to destinations in the immediate area, be they retail, office, recreation, or residential. The goal of adding mixed use with lots of housing along transit corridors is aimed at increasing ridership on existing mass transit so that the services can expand, reduce car dependence and create more affordable living environments. Here let’s remember that affordability is not only the cost of one’s rent, but instead it’s the cost of rent/mortgage, utilities and transportation. The most expensive form of transportation is the personal automobile, between gas and maintenance/repairs, the cost adds up over time and increases as the car ages.
Within the last couple of years, Council and our Planning Commission have created the TC1 zoning district.
Flash forward to our council meeting upcoming on Monday April 4. There is a public hearing scheduled for a second reading of an ordinance to apply this newly created district to the State Street/ Eisenhower corridor wherein 68 land parcels would now be allowed to build mixed use developments. This area was most likely the first test area for this new district because it meets the district criteria but also because there are few if any nearby residential neighbors who will be impacted by the shadows of taller buildings appearing in the wake of these new development allowances.
Some folks in our community are objecting to this move because it will raise the value of these parcels for developers without asking them to directly contribute to our affordable housing fund or to build units affordable to people making 0-60% of our area median income (AMI), which is ~$43K/year for individual earner.
Building Height Incentives / Premiums
In Michigan, what is known as inclusionary zoning is prohibited by state law. What planners and residents have tried in the past in Ann Arbor is attempt to incentivize developers to include affordable housing [as defined in the above paragraph] in their developments in exchange for additional building height. Our experience with these kinds of incentives in our D1 and D2 downtown area zoning districts is that developers will opt to just build to the maximum height allowed without premium [so, building *zero* affordable housing] because it will cost them more to add those affordable units and decrease their profit margins.
In fact, the only time these premiums were used was when developers found out that council was poised to make the premiums more restrictive. Howard Frehsee, is a principal with Cerca Trova LLC, who is currently developing the 19 story residential building on Washington behind the Michigan Theater. Here he is quoted in the Ann Arbor Observer as to why he chose this moment, after a decade or so of these premiums being available to developers, to use the premium:
What we have learned over the last decade or so is that building height premiums do not create the number of affordable housing units we need to meet the demand for them. The development described in the Frehsee quote above is one of 3 developments that have used this premium in its 10+ year existence, a total of 36 units of housing.
While TC1 will not produce housing that meets the affordability standard below 60% AMI, it will increase the number of riders on city buses which in turn will allow AAATA to increase frequency and more comprehensive bus and transit services along this corridor. As we have seen in recent weeks, AAATA is already proposing an increase to the transit millage. The additional housing built here will only further fund and justify more investment in transportation infrastructure by our city and by AAATA.
And again, let’s remember that affordability is not only the cost of one’s rent, but instead it's the cost of rent/mortgage, utilities and transportation.
The primary way we will get housing built affordable for 0-60% AMI is to directly invest in it. This is why it will be important to support developments like those coming to our city sites which are being developed in conjunction with the affordable housing millage passed in 2020. This millage brings about $6.5M/year into the city budget for housing developments like this one for which another public hearing is scheduled for this Monday: 350 S Fifth (former Y Lot).
We need more investment and can be moderately hopeful that the new HUD budget with an $11B increase in funding for 2023 will send our state, county and city more dollars to work with in terms of creating more affordable housing in addition to what we are already doing with our housing millage.
#eastannarbor supports both the TC1 district at the State Street corridor and the housing development at 350 S Fifth. The latter, of course, is right next to the Blake Transit Center in our downtown. We can’t think of a more perfect location for a bunch of affordable housing
What do you think?