Wednesday, November 27, 2019

David Erik Nelson: In Michigan: a Primer, a Travelogue

Gentle reader, I am going to hop on the bandwagon and recommend you read local author, David Erik Nelson's In Michigan: a Primer, a Travelogue. The essay is a reflection on Michigan Thanksgiving and Michigan culture from an outsider's perspective. In it, Nelson describes traveling to visit his wife's family in Michigan's northern Hinterlands. It covers a variety of Michigan experiences: eating deer hearts, up north bars, and ofcourse, driving:
It's a lot of driving, but not by Michigan standards. In Michigan, no amount of driving is too much driving, nor any distance too short to drive. In Michigan, nothing is close enough to walk to, even when it is within eye shot. In Michigan you might drive to the place you already are, in order to pick up the car and go back to where you never left. You can do that, in Michigan, even though the roads are crap and the legislature refuses to pay to fix them, because Michigan.
Nelson's perspective on Thanksgiving in Michigan is a wonderful lense through which to view our state and our culture. If you have a few moments to yourself this holiday, read In Michigan: a Primer, a Travelogue, you will not regret it.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Ann Arbor City Council Preview: November 18 2019

Gentler reader tonight is the final #a2council meeting of November. I have already written about the ambitious affordable housing agenda and the Weber Property.

Here's a quick rundown of the rest of the agenda.

The consent agenda is largely dominated by affordable housing items. I would not be surprised if some of these get pulled. There are also two sidewalk gaps: Stimson and Scio Church.

There are 4 public hearings tonight. Three are on township island rezonings, and will likely not have participants. PH-1/DB-1 is on Vic Village, a 12 story building to be built on the 1100 block of South U.

Elsewhere there is DC-2, which would change the way Ann Arbor pays for and prioritizes sidewalk gap filling. DC-3 which is a settlement allowing the Weber PUD. There is also DC-4 which would direct the city administrator to investigate the Weber Property for Affordable Housing. At the risk of editorializing, it would be really something if council voted against developing affordable housing on properties they already own (e.g. 4th and Catherine Lot) in favor of investigating the possibility of affordable housing on a property they do not own and that would cost several million dollars.

Gentle readers, what agenda items are you most interested in? Make sure you tune in to the action tonight 7:00 on CTN and follow along with the #a2council hashtag on twitter.

Let's talk about the Weber Property

The Weber Property from a 1947 aerial photograph.

tl;dr: There is a great need for housing in Ann Arbor. This PUD provides housing. It also preserves the important ecological features on the property. It should be approved.

At the October 21 city council meeting the Ann Arbor City Council voted 6 to 11 to approve a PUD at the Weber Property, 2857 Packard. This did not meet the 8 votes needed to approve the rezoning. At the November 4 #a2council meeting, council failed to pass a resolution to make an offer on the 7.66 acre property for $4.76 million, then again for $3 million. At the same meeting council was able to add 114 acres in Ann Arbor Township to the Greenbelt at a cost to the city of $186,500. The city also bought 5 acres within the city as a natural area for $153K. At $30,000 per acre, this is less than one tenth the cost that was proposed to buy the Weber property.

The owner and the developer of the Weber property have sued the city and tonight DC-3 is a settlement of that lawsuit. This is very similar to the PUD that was voted down on at the October 21 council meeting. I think the current proposal is a responsible use for this site that preserves the important environmental features and address the urgent need for housing in the city. The proposed PUD would create 51 homes: 25 detached and 26 in multi-family buildings. The homes are a maximum of 2000 sq ft and targeted to cost about $400k. This is less than the median home sale price for Ann Arbor in September was $436k. So these houses would be around market rate. At approximately $200 per square foot, these homes are also within the estimated cost per square foot of neighboring properties. Here is a haphazard sampling of adjacent parcels and their costs per square foot. Prices are from Zillow except for 2889 Easy Street, where I could only find the Redfin estimate (I looked up the Zillow prices on November 2nd and am too lazy to see if they changed.)

2765 Carmel St: $240,000/1,388 sqft = $172.9 /sqft
2989 Easy St: $240,054/1,220 sqft = $192.8 /sqft
2889 Easy St: $222,658/816 sqft = $237 / sqft
2869 Easy St: $212,597/986 sqft = $219 / sqft (sold for $210k in 2018)
2929 Easy St: $196,691/1,127 sqft = $174.5 / sqft
2829 Easy St: $245,556/900 sqft = $272.84 / sqft
The charge that this proposed PUD represents luxury townhouses is hyperbolic, unless we are to consider all of Easy Street to be luxury ranch houses. These new homes are 1) less than the median home sale price in September and 2) within the range of costs per square foot found in existing housing on adjacent parcels.

Opponents of this development also site concern over the trees on this property. In particular there are two very large bur oaks on the property. Some have even gone as far as to suggest there are trees on the property that predate widespread European settlement of the area. I find this claim to stretch credulity. First the property in question because a farm in 1840. In the 1947 aerial photograph, we can see the site had no forest. There is a windrow of trees running north-south as well as a smaller one running east-west. There are some landscaping trees along the driveway and what appears to be a plantation of trees in a grid north of the house. There are two large bur oaks on the property now. One is 60" in diameter, the other 48". They are part of the windrow. Given that these trees in question are part of the windrow, it is very unlikely that they were there before the farm. Finally, it is important to note that the PUD preserves these two spectacular trees and the other areas of high quality woodland on the property.

Trees will be lost if the PUD is built. Of the 184 trees on the property that will be cut down, 160 will be black walnuts, 4 bur oak, and the raminder are a mix of other species. Some opponents of this project have said that preserving the site is climate action. Trees do sequester hundreds of kg of CO2 per year. When thinking about climate change, we must also consider tradeoffs. The tradeoff here is losing trees a few trees in Ann Arbor for a moderately dense development that will allow people to commute shorter distances versus losing lots of trees in the area for low density development that forces people to commute to Ann Arbor from outside of the city. Right now 80,000 people commute into Ann Arbor every day, I am sure at least 51 of them would love to cut their commutes down and live in this proposed PUD. Driving on average releases 404 grams of CO2 per mile, there are 230 work days per year. Assuming everyone here would drive a 3.3 mile commute to downtown versus a commute from just outside the city on Packard (5.3 miles), there would be a ~18,000 kg per year savings in CO2 emissions for the development. This far outweighs the annual sequestration of the trees that will be lost and does not even take into account the use of public transit or cycling. Denying this PUD is not climate action.

There is a great need for housing in Ann Arbor. This PUD provides housing. It also preserves the important ecological features on the property. It should be approved.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

March for Affordable Housing today at Liberty Plaza

Gentle readers, are you excited about all the target="_blank"affordable housing items on tomorrow's #a2council agenda? If you are, there is an opportunity to advocate for affordable housing today. From 1 to 4 pm today there is a March for Affordable Housing starting Liberty Plaza. You can find out more here.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Several Affordable Housing Items on Monday's City Council Agenda

Summary of recommendations from the presentation, Feasibility Analysis of Affordable Housing on Underutilized City-Owned Property

Good news gentle reader: there is an ambitious slate affordable housing items on Monday's #a2council agenda. Scott Trudeau, former Ann Arbor Planning Commissioner, has a great summary which I am stealing. You can find his original google doc, which I am presenting largely unedited below.

In April of this year, City Council directed city staff to evaluate the feasibility of developing several city-owned parcels as affordable housing. The report evaluating the parcels is complete and it will be presented at the November 18th City Council Meeting (7pm in Council Chambers at City Hall, worldwide on YouTube).

Here is a Google Map of sites with a summary of staff recommendations.

Staff is not wasting any time. They have also included resolutions to move forward each of the recommendations from the analysis. Recommendations fall into one of four categories: develop, immediately, further research by staff, pursue (or continue) community engagement, or do not develop as housing.

Most notably, staff identified both the 4th/Catherine surface parking lot and the UM Dental Clinic site on N Ashley (currently leased to U-M) as sites to begin to develop immediately as affordable housing. Staff highlights that these sites are likely to score highly for federal low income housing tax credit funds (LIHTC) and be feasible to develop as affordable housing for households making no more than 60% of the area median income (60% AMI). (To learn more about affordable housing jargon like LIHTC and AMI, this is a great article: The ABCs of affordability in Washtenaw County.)

2000 S Industrial (current Housing Commission office & city maintenance lot) was identified as needing more evaluation from staff to determine how to maximize the number of 60% AMI homes with a financially viable project.

For larger but complex sites (or sites that already have an ongoing community engagement processes), the recommendations are to begin (or continue) a community engagement process to narrow down the ideal scenarios for these sites: Ashley/William (Klein’s) Lot, First/William Lot, 721 N Main St, and the AAHC Platt/Springbrook site.

The staff report recommends not developing 1320 Baldwin (Senior Center) and recommends evaluating 1510 E. Stadium (decommissioned fire station #2) as temporary or permanent office space for the Housing Commission or other city office use.

Here are links to the individual agenda items:

INT-1 Analysis of the Financial Feasibility of Developing Under-Utilized City-Owned Properties as Affordable Housing
CA-10 Resolution to Direct the Ann Arbor Housing Commission to Develop 121 E. Catherine and 404 N. Ashley as Affordable Housing (4th/Catherine surface lot and U-M Dental Clinic building & surface lot sites)
CA-11 Resolution to Direct the Ann Arbor Housing Commission to Pursue Affordable Housing Development of 2000 S. Industrial
CA-12 Resolution to Direct City Staff to Conduct Community Engagement Around Development Options for Ashley/William and First/William Surface Parking Lots to Support Affordable Housing in the City
CA-13 Resolution to Direct the City Staff to Conduct Community Engagement Around Development Options for 721 N Main in Support of Affordable Housing in the City
CA-14 Resolution to Direct the Ann Arbor Housing Commission to Continue Community Engagement Around Development Options for the AAHC-Owned Properties at 3432 - 3440 Platt Road and 3435 - 3443 Springbrook to Support Affordable Housing in the City
CA-15 Resolution to Direct the Ann Arbor Housing Commission to Determine Feasibility of using 1510 E. Stadium for Temporary or Permanent AAHC or Other City Office Space
CA-16 Resolution Directing the City Administrator to Collaborate with the Ann Arbor Housing Commission to Provide Coordinated Analysis on the Feasibility of the City-Owned Property at 353 S. Main as a Potential Location for Affordable Housing (“Palio Lot”)

Ok gentle readers, it's me again. Isn't this exciting news? If you can, come to the #a2council meeting on Monday and let them know what you think. You can also email all the councilmembers what you think. Here are their emails.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Vote today

Gentle readers, if there is an election where you live, please vote today. Locally I know we have the AAPS Millage. There are also elections in Saline, Chelsea, and Milan. These elections will have low turnout, so you vote is extra important. Please vote if you are able. There is also same day voter registration in the State now. So even if you are not yet registered to vote locally, you could be by the end of the day.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Ann Arbor City Council Preview: November 4th 2019

Gentle readers, tonight is the first #a2council meeting of November. Here's the agenda.

The fun starts off with a moderate 16 item consent agenda. CA-1 is approval of street closings for Kindlefest, Dec. 6th. CA-2 brings a new property into the Greenbelt in partnership with the county and the township. CA-3 is the appropriation of money from the parkland preservation millage to purchase a wetland near Traver Creek.

There is one public hearing tonight. PH-1/B-1 would amend the zoning ordinance to allow for increased floor area ratio (FAR) and increased heights Commercial and Downtown zoned areas for new buildings that incorporate subsidized/affordable housing units. Given that the state greatly limits the ways municipalities can coerce the construction of affordable units, this change to the zoning code seems like a great idea. Thought given the current makeup of council, I would not be surprised if there is heated debate about this ordinance tonight.

This brings us to the final spicy meatball of the evening: DC-5 Resolution in Support of Creating a Plan to Achieve Ann Arbor Community-Wide Climate Neutrality by 2035. Given that this is just a resolution to create a future plan, it will probably not be too controversial. Still I would be surprised if members of council did not take this opportunity to make big statements about climate change.

Gentle readers, what agenda items are you most interested in? Make sure you tune in to the action tonight 7:00 on CTN and follow along with the #a2council hashtag on twitter.

Opinion: vote yes on the AAPS millage tomorrow

Gentle readers, tomorrow there is an election for those of you living in the AAPS district. You will be asked if the district should float a millage for a 30-year billion dollar bond. Here is more information about the specifics.

Here's my tl;dr: I am for the AAPS millage. Public schools are a public good, and it makes sense to do what we can to support the schools in our community.

In the last two decades, public schools in Michigan have gone from middle of the pack nationally to below 45th. At a state level, we have a broken system for funding public schools. This millage will not fix that. However, it will help to insulate AAPS against the budgetary reality at the state level (I think Michigan is the only state that has not increased school funding in the last 10 years). There are some folks saying we need to fix school funding at the state level rather than put this local bandaid on the budget. There is no way we will have a shot at fixing the school funding until the state legislature is not gerrymandered. So that means waiting until at least 2022 before we can even have a plan put forward at the state level. There is the possibility of a voter initiated petition drive, but I am unaware of any group working on this currently. A petition drive would require at least a year of work and likely millions of dollars. In short, I don't think it is reasonable to wait for school funding to be fixed at the state level before we try to make sure our local schools are OK.

The billion dollar price tag seems like a lot. AAPS has 32 buildings with an average age of 62 years. The millage comes out to about one million per building per year for the life of the millage. Without the millage, I am unsure how AAPS will pay for needed upgrades and it will certainly put the schools in a worse position.

Some people are upset that last year the school board dropped ~$800k to purchase a property next to a school where a daycare was going in. They see this as an example of how the board is out of control and making wastefull decisions. I think the board was largely responding to parent pressure. Also, $800k is only 0.08% of the millage amount. One example of a small, potentially wasteful purchase is not a great reason to not support the School District. Rather, it's a reason to work harder to ensure the district makes responsible choices in the future.

The anti-millage side has a lot of the usual anti-tax suspects. Now they don't say that they are anti-tax, instead they nitpick about this millage. I think this is disingenuous. I am seeing shades of the opposition to the 2009 Washtenaw County Schools Millage here. Note: the anti-millage group has not submitted a donor list at this point so I can't say which monied interests are opposing the millage this time. In 2009, it was the county's largest landlord.

There are also some AAPS teachers opposing the millage. The AAPS Teachers Union is officially neutral on the millage. AAPS administration has been pretty shitty to the teachers, who made pay sacrifices in the recession to help balance the budget. These have not been reciprocated by the administration. Teachers are rightfully pissed. The thought is that AAPS Administration should have done more to get the teachers on board and engage them with the millage. And if it's turned down by the voters the thought is that the board and administration will need to get teachers on board for a future millage. Thus the teachers will have increased leverage in upcoming contract negotiations. From my point of view, I am unsure how putting the district on a worse financial footing will help teachers.

So, I am for the millage. The Huron Valley Labor Federation/AFL-CIO support it. AAPS will need to modernize its facilities in the coming decades. If this millage is not passed, it will mean cuts to other places and painful tradeoffs to make the needed improvements. You can look at all the immediately needed repairs as well as future building needs here.