Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Progress notes

It's been busy the last few weeks, so there are quite a few things I'd like to let you know about. Mainly, things I picked up at meetings. Not very exciting? You be the judge!

City of Ypsilanti Planning Commission

It was kinda fun going to someone else's planning commission meeting (March 18). This one was so packed that several people were left standing. Why so popular? It was the official SEMCOG (Southeast Michigan Council of Governments) presentation of progress on the Ann Arbor-Detroit commuter rail line, and officially the Ypsi Planning Commission needed to have a heads-up about the location of the Ypsilanti station.

There's very little doubt that the station will be in Depot Town, where the original Michigan Central Station was located. The folks who are so lovingly restoring the old freight house (think 19th century UPS center) are offering that noble building for passenger and retail use. I'm encouraged that they're thinking retail, because that's the beginning of TOD.

The Planning Commission, however, seemed more concerned that providing parking for commuters would deprive people coming to special events, like the Ypsilanti Heritage Festival (every summer). Hey, how about asking, "Can we have extra trains to bring people to the Heritage Festival?"

I met many of my counterparts on the Ypsi city Planning Commission, one of whom, Cheryl Zuelig, is also a TOD "believer", and was responsible for my learning about the Urban Land Institute meeting. So...

Urban Land Institute

At the March 19 ULI meeting in Livonia, there were progress reports on Transit Oriented Development (TOD) along the proposed Ann Arbor to Detroit commuter rail route.

  • Hats off to the cities of Birmingham and Troy for being ahead of the curve! Even though the proposed route doesn't *yet* go through their cities, they're ready for when it's extended from Detroit to Pontiac. They've forged an alliance between their jurisdictions, which lie on either side of the tracks. They'll be cooperating on zoning and planning commission approvals, and already have nice plans for spiffing up the current Amtrak station, big-time.
  • Good thinking, Dearborn! They're arranged to move the Amtrak station to a better location, and re-zoned around it for TOD.
  • Come on, Ann Arbor - you can do better! For once, AA is lagging. They're planning to set up a little station across from the University of Michigan Hospital - but it's just a place where people can get on and off the train. No TOD or amenities around it. OK, the hospital is a 10-ton gorilla and doesn't leave space for anyone else there, anyway.

The Ann Arbor decision is actually OK as a temporary measure. The prime location (as I said in the last blog) is the crossing fo the Annie and Michigan Central, about half a mile west of the newly planned station. But that will need to wait until there's meaningful service both east-west and north-south before the location's potential is fully realized, and private investors are willing to pony up and build a high-rise there.

Michigan Association of Planning (MAP)

The spring MAP meeting in Lansing (March 26) featured nationally-known planners Christopher Leinberger and Ian Lockwood. Though I didn't learn anything significantly new, I got to meet planners from around the state, and I was very encouraged by the way the state of Michigan and its planners have been looking to the future. There is a great committment to new urbanism and TOD at the state level.

It was really good to chat briefly with Lockwood and Leinberger, who are quite accessible (once you beat your way through the admiring fans). Bad news: though Leinberger is listed as a University of Michigan professor, he is not actually going to return to Ann Arbor from Washington DC, where he's a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution. He says he's too involved with Transportation for America.

Anya Dale, Washtenaw County Planner

Anya is a dynamic 20-something planner who followed my Wake Up Washtenaw link from a note I'd left on Concentrate Ann Arbor. Her job - and her passion - is creating a magnet for talented people by turning Washtenaw Avenue between AA and Ypsi into a corridor for transit-oriented development.

We sat down over coffee in Espresso Royale on Main Street, and shared our enthusiasm for TOD. What she's proposing is exactly the kind of development I'd love to see on East Michigan Avenue in Ypsi Township (see the March 25 blog entry below). Anya urged me to come to today's meeting of stakeholders, and how could I refuse? But first...

Michigan Municipal League, Zone 1

MML's Zone 1 is southeast Michigan. This meeting (April 3) was attended mainly by mayors and council members, and I had a hard time finding other men who weren't wearing neckties ;-) and also others from Washtenaw County. Conan Smith was there, though. Without a necktie, bless him!

The highlight was the talk by James Corless, Campaign Director of Transportation for America's DC headquarters, telling us about changes we can expect and need to push for at the federal level, to improve our transportation options. Although MML is pro-TOD, there wasn't much about it other than Mr. Corless's talk and Conan Smith's enthusiastic networking with interested people.

Co-Housing at Sunward, Great Oak, and Touchstone

Co-housing is a movement that started in Europe (apparently Denmark) about 30 years ago. The goal is to make more rational use of resources by sharing them, and encouraging community interaction and cooperation. I read about the three Ann Arbor co-housing communities in Concentrate Ann Arbor (again...useful publication!).

So I went out to their Sunday afternoon group tour and found myself in a group of one, giving me the chance to focus on the kinds of questions I thought Wake Up Washtenaw should know the answers to.

You see, they designed the communities themselves, and were their own developers. I wanted to know what lessons we could benefit from, plus I wondered if any of them might be interested in taking part in developing a new sustainable community, the "greenfield" community I've been blogging about (January 19). Nick Meima, the champion of Sunward since 1994, was very helpful and frank. The very first lesson? Stop talking and get something done! Excellent idea! We'll have to get together and talk about it. ;-)

Washtenaw Avenue Talent Center

This was Anya Dale's first big meeting on TOD for Washtenaw Avenue. We met at Pittsfield Township's lovely new administrative center, and had people from about twenty different organizations, including at least three of the four jurisdictions through which Washtenaw Ave. passes (I think AA was missing), but also AATA, MDOT, Chamber of Commerce, WATS, several developers, even the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice. Not to mention Wake Up Washtenaw. :-)

The tenor was generally enthusiastic and up-beat, with the emphasis on getting ideas from the group on how to go about making the necessary changes in transportation, zoning, marketing, and legislation. Lots of jumbo sticky-notes were issued, written on, stuck up on walls, re-arranged, and now have to be typed up by Anya and her helper.

In spite of the enthusiasm, there was an underlying current of pessimism, perhaps best voiced by Newcombe Clark, Publisher of Concentrate Ann Arbor (that useful e-zine again!). To paraphrase: Michigan's population is shrinking, so we can't expect to have people really build anything new on Washtenaw. Let's get real! We'd need a veritable "sea change" (his words) to make this work. It was actually a very good point. He's a partner in a real estate firm, and there aren't many realtors who feel optimistic these days.

Well, I rose to the bait like the sucker I am. (At least I wasn't the only one.) I was glad he used the word "sea change", because that's exactly what we should expect. As global warming raises sea level, Michigan will become a much more desireable place to live. All those Michiganders who fled to Florida will be back in the next few decades. Climate change is also expected to make the US southwest hotter and more arid, and Michigan just a little wetter and warmer, so the Michiganders who escaped to Arizona will be back, too. Let's get ready for them.

I could go on, but I'll spare you.

All in all, an excellent meeting. Wake Up Washtenaw is getting a higher profile, so let's keep moving!

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