Susan Wineberg pens a very interesting op-ed submission to the Ann Arbor News, blaming Ann Arbor’s affordable housing crisis on the University. While I’m not sure that the University is entirely to blame, I think her point is well taken: the University has indeed destroyed much more housing than it has replaced in the last 30 years. Her historical analysis is intriguing:

“… Consider this. When the university constructed the School of Business on Monroe St. in the late 1940s, it relocated many of the houses on that site to other parts of town. When it built the Food Services Building (later Neuroscience and just recently demolished for the Bio-Med Building going up right now) the houses on these lots were moved elsewhere. When they built the Law School and Martha Cook Dorm, houses on the site were moved to other locations. We know this from a house-moving permit book at the Bentley Library.

By the 1950s, however, the ethic of demolition had replaced that of recycling and it continues unabated to this day. In 1953 the Wines Field buildings and Geddes House were demolished and in 1959, 820 E. Washington was as well. In 1964, the Jefferson Apartments were demolished as were the Cutting Apartments on State Street. In the 1990s the university began tearing down historic houses on Wall Street to provide parking for the medical center. These houses were connected with some of the earliest settlers of Ann Arbor and deserved a better fate. In 1996, the University Terrace Apartments for married students were demolished.

The university has also been systematically buying and demolishing historic houses on South Division and intends to demolish the entire east side of Division, from Blimpie Burger (Krazy Jim’s) on Madison to East William Street. This is stated in the 1987 Update of the 1963 Campus Master Plan by Johnson, Johnson and Roy (which recently won an award from the Society for College and University Planning/American Institute of Architects) as a way “to complete the western edge of the campus by extending development to the major north and south arterial, Division Street, to provide a strong visual boundary and identity from the west. The Thompson Street parking deck will be expanded to the edge of Division and softened with landscape appropriate with the quality of the street.” This plan envisions Jefferson Street as a new entry into campus and involves the demolition of a lot of affordable and historic residential housing. … “

To me, this is what the issue comes down to: When you are a large and powerful institution with lots of money at your disposal, it is easy to destroy and built monster one-use buildings and projects. It’s extremely difficult to build complex, successful urban communities. In fact, I would argue the development of successful urban communities necessarily defies the logic of “planners” sitting in an office. Expanding the University is easy: expanding the University in a way that is successful for both the University community and city is difficult, and this is what the University should be preoccupied with – not merely where and what to build next, or where the “boundary” “should be”. Here I will propose a few principals that the University and city should embrace:

1) Wherever possible, preserve historic buildings, fascades, and architectural elements. After all, it is this built history which makes all the parents croon about how “quaint” the city is, and drop lots of money in local businesses, which gives me a job and helps make Ann Arbor a pleasant place to pay $30,000 a year to live. It also helps makes us “cool,” or something like that – whatever makes Ann Arbor a place where young people will actually live, instead of running from this sprawl-obsessed state to a place with a touch of real urbanity.

2) Remain committed to a multi-use street. I’m not sure where we got the idea that a street is simply a strip of tar for cars. A street is a space for trucks, cars, bicycles, pedestrians, motorcycles, segways, etc, and should be designed with all of these uses in mind. The city should be place priority on building many more crosswalks, medians (to make crossing easier and slow traffic) and bike lanes (sorely needed, particularly “downtown” where the few that exist don’t really connect to anything or each other). Some of the most successful cities, (New York, Washington D.C., and Paris, in my experience) do this in a variety of ways – a wide street can have “express” lanes in the center, local lanes for slower traffic and delivery trucks, a median with benches, and even bike lanes. A bicycle and pedestrian has every much a “right” to be on the street as the auto, since all participate equally in the social and economic life of the city. However, I suspect many in the city harbor the prejudice that all students are somehow undesirable, and hence the city shouldn’t serve their needs – but nothing could be more wrong.

3) Both the University and the city should remember the essence of urbanism: fine-grained, multi-use development. This means the city should loosen or abolish large parts of the zoning codes for much of “downtown,” and encourage new developers to take into consideration the needs of the city. To be clear, I think this is something the city’s planning department understands, as the Lower Town project, Corner House Lofts and the Collegian will combine uses in excellent ways.

4) Related to the last principal, the University should seek to craft innovative, creative solutions to their growth needs, instead of just exercising their hegemony of power to impose their will unilaterally. The University must recognize their role in destroying street life. Parking garages, massive office and laboratory buildings all enforce a uniformity of use on the surrounding streets: meaning they will only be used at certain times of the day, and there will never be businesses, no matter how many pedestrians pass buy hungry for a cup of coffee or a bagel. There is no rational or economic reason why all new University buildings must be single-use, only a cultural one. In their obsession with constructing a “campus” with buildings in a green grid, they view using office space in University Towers and 611 Church (as examples) as temporary. Why not include ground-level retail space, or upper-classmen apartments into new buildings, like what many other colleges do? Also, while I certainly understand why campuses are nice, why not locate small offices and units of the University that don’t need to be on campus in smaller buildings in Ann Arbor? I see this being mutually beneficial: the pedestrian traffic on Ann Arbor streets would be an economic boon to downtown business, and the city could fully utilize some of its vacant lots and office space. Indeed, this is a pattern that I see occurring now, but generally because of a lack of on-campus space, not part of a general strategy. If the University wants to build their suburban paradise, they can do it on North Campus, but if its lifeless and sterile and nobody wants to go there, don’t be suprised. Ann Arbor is a city, and insisting otherwise is not only counterproductive and destructive, but downright banal.

Author: Rob