6 Slightly Harder, More Expensive Things Ann Arbor Could do to Build a Better City
(See my post on “Five Easy Things”)
1) Plow (some) sidewalks
Under current Ann Arbor law, the property owner is responsible for clearing snow from the sidewalk on their property. While this might make sense for lightly-traveled residential neighborhoods, in a dense urban environment it makes just about as much sense as requiring property owners to clear the street in front of their property. Currently, after snow storms in Ann Arbor, until you reach campus, the sidewalks are a treacherous patchwork of snow, ice, and slush, since some property owners don’t clear it right away, and heavily trafficked areas can create shovel-proof ice. In my tiny Maine town of 6,000, the town government pays a local man to snowblow the sidewalk on Main street and an adjacent street – a length of about 2 miles. If my town can afford this, the 7th largest city in Michigan with a population over 100,000 could certainly afford to pay to have the busiest downtown streets professionally cleared, and sparingly salted and sanded to boot.
Why are our roads meticulously cleared, swept, salted in maintained, and the sidewalks are left to buckle, be flooded with huge puddles (one block from liberty near where I live there is one large enough to ice-skate on!). The minute people park their cars and try to walk somewhere they don’t stop paying taxes, and don’t suddenly less deserve a clean street. Indeed, if the city’s real estate speculators expect to sell million-dollar condos to aging and retired people, they should be particularly interested in helping them move about – handicapped-accessible curbs at intersections and nicely cleared sidewalks to boot. And if a few students (whose existence single-handily maintains the vitality and diversity in your local economy) incidentally benefit, so much the better.
This of course begs the question who to hire to do this job. I think the answer is simple: there is one group of people who have lots of experience clearing a vast network of footpaths of ice and snow: the University of Michigan. They already posses the equipement and expertise, and with some city money, I assume could fairly easily also clear at least State Street and South University.
2) Approve Accessory Apartments
As part of a holistic policy of liberalizing zoning laws, the city should adopt zoning that allows for the creation of accessory apartments or “granny flats” within existing homes and outbuildings in neighborhoods zoned for single-family homes. These 1 or 2 person apartments would increase the population density of the city (increasing taxes!) without requiring new building. The city’s professional planning staff well knows that many residential neighborhoods have seen long-term decreases in population density as baby boomers have aged and the property values have increased. Allowing for small apartments would utilize these under-used buildings to provide housing in the city, and also perhaps have the incidental effect of increasing business for local merchants.
(perhaps the only requirements needed in a revised zoning code for “downtown”: new buildings must be higher than a certain number of stories, and include a minimum of 10% floor space for residential OR commercial uses, and require retail on the ground floor – even a shallow storefront)
3) Build Mixed-use parking garages
If we continue to let the DDA to construct massive, ugly parking garages downtown, pretty soon downtown will be a bunch of blighted, deserted streets surrounding a corporately-owned Main/State/South University. Woops, we’re almost there! Parking garages my be something of a necessary evil, but they can include rentable retail and commercial space on the ground floor. This increases pedestrian traffic (increasing safety), increases small businesses (making profit for the owner of the parking garage and increasing Ann Arbor’s tax base), and make the city a nicer place to live (maybe even “cooler”) To me, it’s a win, win, win situation. In fact, the city already has one successful garage of this type: the Liberty Station garage, next to the Michigan Theater building. You may not even know its there, since on Liberty Street it houses a bank.
4) Build Pleasant, Multi-Use Streets
The city could convert ugly, wide, high-volume streets like Huron or Pioneer into boulevards with express lanes, local lanes, medians, crosswalks, and street-side parking.
Combined with simple zoning laws requiring developers build to the property line, well-designed streets can boost property values, and prevent the necessity for “traffic calming” and reduce speeding, without putting in huge speed bumps or hiring more police. If the city doesn’t know what street I’d like to see, in my experience many in New York and Washington, D.C. fit the bill – buy me a plane ticket, and my friends and I would be happy to show you around.
5) Build a city-wide network of bike lanes
Yes, I know that technically Ann Arbor has bike lanes, but studying the map and talking with friends who bike I know the system could be much improved. The more interconnected the system, the better: perhaps paths along the Huron could be expanded and connected, allowing people to bike without interference with cars from North Campus to Kerrytown to shop at the farmer’s market.
Again, studies have shown that the more paths exist, the more people use them, and busy paths will result not only in health but also make areas of the city safer.
6) Re-draw the wards around coherent neighborhoods
I’ve ranted about this enough by now most visitors should know what I’m talking about. Put short: the wards in Ann Arbor are drawn as pie shapes centered on campus, with the intended or unintended effect of splitting the student population almost evenly between each ward. Why anyone would want to do this is beyond me, but the shape of the city’s wards should be re-designed in a democratic process involving the input of as many people as possible. Read more about this here.
To be fair, the ideas contained here and in my post about “5 easy things” aren’t new. I am simply presenting them for discussion and debate, and fully intend to work to make at least some of them a reality as a member of the city’s Cool Cities Task Force. I think that if presented clearly, there already exists a broad concensus on most of these issues: all that remains is to do them. To read more about this kind of stuff, see the “Cities, Suburbs, and Planning” section of my book list, particularly Jane Jacob’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities, David Sucher’s City Comforts. Also, I have recently added some planning-related links on the left, in addition to the many local bloggers I have listed which frequently write about planning.