Rising to New Heights: Why Ann Arbor Needs to Embrace Development



In May, the Ann Arbor City Council approved the most recent high-rise development project at Huron and Division. Despite the shortage of housing in Ann Arbor, the city council approved it by the the slimmest of margins (6 votes to 5) out of fear of an “eight-figure lawsuit”. Blackmail should not be the development policy of Ann Arbor. Despite Ann Arbor’s endowment of highly educated people, its vibrant culture, and natural beauty, Ann Arbor has failed to become the major city of Michigan and to supplant ailing Detroit. The solution is urbanization, which in the words of Edward Glaeser, an economist at Harvard and author of Triumph of the City, makes us “richer, smarter, greener, and healthier”.

Urbanization is the movement of people and businesses to the city away from other types of living (suburban, rural). Ann Arbor currently has a relatively small urban core centered around the University, surrounded by suburbs. This is primarily due to an oppressive zoning policy, which limits the height of buildings and the scope of development.

The current zoning policy of Ann Arbor limits the quantity and height of development in Ann Arbor. While there has been a significant increase in high-rise development since the height restricted was loosened in 2004, much of Ann Arbor, particularly outside of the urban core, remains single-family style housing. This has driven up rents and has made it so residents of Ann Arbor spend a staggering 37.4% of their income on rent versus 30.9% nationwide, despite a smaller living space. For students this leads to increased indebtedness and for existing members of the community it leads to a migration out of the city towards the more affordable suburbs. The solution to these problems is urbanization.

As a city urbanizes it becomes richer through more affordable rents due to the increase in the supply of housing and rising incomes of its inhabitants. In a supply-constrained city such as Ann Arbor, this would at least help to stem the tide of rising rents. Vertical development and increased density will allow the preservation of the culture in the downtown area and for more green spaces at less cost. In conjunction with lower prices, the increased density also increases demand for goods and services and allows for more specialization, which both lead more jobs and a more productive economy. Additionally, due to smaller living spaces, people interact with others more frequently, which leads to the transmission of ideas making people smarter and businesses work better. In an age of technological advance it is no wonder the business world still runs largely on in-person meetings. Given Ann Arbor’s endowment of highly educated people, Ann Arbor could become the new economic and intellectual hub of Michigan.

Urbanization also makes a city greener by making alternative methods of transit – to the automobile – more practical and by allowing more room for green spaces. For example, despite its bad reputation, due to old poorly insulated buildings and seemingly extravagant energy usage in places like Times Square, New York City has the lowest carbon emissions per-capita of any major city in the US and some of the most magnificent parks. It is no coincidence that New York has one of the best subway systems and some of the best and most heavily used parks in the country.

People who live in a city are healthier due to lower rates of obesity and more exercise. Lower rates of obesity are largely due to less driving – driving being one of the leading causes of obesity – and more exercising. While Ann Arbor has one of the highest rates of pedestrian commuting in the country (15.5%), increased urbanization would make this number even higher.

Despite these benefits, several local politicians have attempted to prevent the recent surge in development and continue to try to block new development. For example, Mike Anglin, D-5th Ward, wants to limit supply in order to increase/support property valuations. This is nonsensical because an increase in housing prices for existing housing owners is increased cost for non-owners. Additionally, given supply constraints, Ann Arbor is far removed from falling home valuations. Sabra Briere, D-1st Ward, reason against new development is to ensure that the public services can handle the new development; however the increased tax revenue will allow for more resources for these services.

Some more general critiques of development are pollution, falling housing prices, and a crowding out of the local culture. For example, an increase in the supply of housing, if this supply is met with increased demand, can lead to an increase in congestion, noise, and other forms of pollution, i.e. New York, or if there is not enough demand can lead to a glut of housing and falling property values i.e. Detroit. However, this does not have to be the case. Less car usage, as other forms of transportation become more practical could lead to less traffic, noise and pollution. New development also uses newer building methods than the existing stock of housing, making it more environmentally friendly. Also, given the shortage of housing in Ann Arbor, the falling property value argument also espoused by councilman Anglin does not make sense.

There is also an argument that the local culture can be harmed in many ways, such as harming the small-town feel of Ann Arbor, creating gated communities, where the wealthy live in high rises walled off from the rest of the population. As mentioned above, given the increased supply of housing, preservation of the culture becomes more affordable. The gated-community argument is also fallacious. Due to less space residents of cities spend more time in “third places” such as restaurants, coffee shops, or parks, making them less-walled off than their suburban counterparts and fostering community.

Despite Ann Arbor’s culture and highly educated population it has failed to become the major city of Michigan. An urban future will allow Ann Arbor to become “richer, smarter, greener, and healthier”. Urban policy in Ann Arbor should not be run in order to avoid large lawsuits, but instead in a way that maximizes the well-being of the population. This means increased urbanization and for politicians to embrace new development. Ann Arbor has a golden opportunity. Let’s not squander it.

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