The Politics of Development: If You Think It’s About Urban Density and Affordable Living, Think Again
There have been political battles involving The Moravian since B.C. 60. Seriously. Hapsburgs figure prominently in this history, as does Milan Kundera.
Here in Ann Arbor, The Moravian PUD went down in flames early this morning with very few of the young professionals (YPs) and students in attendance whom developers Jeff Helminski and Newcombe Clark had rallied together in a pre-Council meeting Happy Hour. Evidently, when it was time for their flash mob politicos to speak in support of The Moravian they got email alerts so that they didn’t have to sit around listening to other people blather on. Concentrate Media’s editor Jeff Myers spoke passionately in favor of the project. Developer Newcombe Clark, until recently, was Myers’s colleague at Concentrate Media. Myers cajoled Council members to realize that the development would bring mixed-use development to a neighborhood that desperately needed a shot of development botox. Concentrate Media, of course, is owned by Issue Media Group. IMG’s business model, according to Tracy Gosson, who works for IMG is to feed at the public trough then cover “local” government. Gosson is quoted in a piece published in Janaury 2010 in the Baltimore City Paper as saying, “…[P]artnering with government—or any other organization that wants to help fund IMG e-zines…—is her media outlet’s business model. ‘Government, a lot of the time, are partners of ours,’ Gosson explains in a Jan. 18 phone conversation, referring to Detroit-based Issue Media Group (IMG).”
Of course, IMG’s business model, and Concentrate Media’s coverage of “local” Ann Arbor issues, such as development projects like The Moravian, present potential conflicts of interest. Stephen J. A. Ward, founding director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was recently quoted in the Baltimore City Paper as explaining that IMG’s public-financing model “is a problem if the publication is pretending to do journalism….And it’s a problem for the writers—they have to ask themselves ‘How independent can we be?’”
Kelly McBride, the Poynter Institute’s Ethics Group Leader, says of the IMG/Concentrate business model “…Simply going to a government official and saying, ‘Hey, we need money,’ that creates a quid pro quo. Who knows what the unspoken expectations are?”
Rebecca Lopez Kriss spoke in favor of the project. If you don’t know who she is, you’re over 25, and not a member of the Chamber of Commerce. You’re also not in the loop about the Germantown Historic District Committee. Kriss was appointed to that group by the Mayor and Council. In her comments in favor of the Moravian, she suggested that Council members who voted against the project could proudly call themselves political creationists, for surely a vote against the Moravian was a vote against the inevitable evolution of the New Order of things as determined by those 25-30 year olds who earn $35,000-$50,000 per year, who want “affordable” 1-2 bedroom housing to fall from the sky like manna and, statistically, are the least reliable voters in local elections. Turns out Kriss bit the hand of the creationist who appointed her to the Germantown Historic District Commission. Mayor Hieftje voted against awarding the Moravian the PUD status the project needed to move forward.
Gen Y political flash mobs, and politically connected developers be damned. The Boomers and the Germantown residents had the final say: No PUD.
If the above description paints an ugly picture, it’s meant to. It was an ugly, adversarial confrontation stoked by the developers who used naive young professionals (YPs), drunk on their own importance to the economic development and economic success of our city, to stand up in public and make fools of themselves for the most part through sheer ignorance of the facts regarding the development in favor of which they spoke so passionately. They wanted Council to approve the PUD for the Moravian because YPs need “affordable” 1-bedroom housing. Alas, The Moravian offers, primarily, 3-4 bedroom apartments with shared common areas (i.e. student housing). The developers and Planning Commission members refused to release to the public the exact rents that would be charged. However, the YPs came one after the other, something like a scene from a George Romero movie, and swore the project was the Holy Grail of “affordable housing.” The YPs were fed up with “shitty” housing stock (to quote a lithe, blonde, young woman who forgot, momentarily, that she wasn’t in Cafe Habana with her cuddies sipping margaritas). There were those who lectured Council on how much the Moravian would contribute to the property tax base. No matter that the last several similar developments, including Zaragon Place, received tax assessment reductions from the city after the completion of their projects. The Near North project got a $500,000 present of tax dollars from the Downtown Development Authority after the project’s approval just because, well, Avalon Housing and the private developer went to the DDA and asked for money. The Near North project sits outside the DDA’s area of operation.
Where does that line for free money start?
I can tell you that I will work to end such tax dollar giveaways. Avalon Housing and the Near North private developer should expect their $500,000 DDA taxpayer-funded gift re-examined for its legality and, if found to be made illegally, revoked, should I be elected.
These YPs, evidently, had no idea that The Moravian project is not about urban density or lofty ideals. The development is about the dirty, pretty money that Newcombe Clark and Jeff Helminski have spent, and stand to gain from their “clever” (to quote the President of a local bank who spoke in favor of the project) accumulation of several small parcels. No matter that Ann Arbor zoning ordinances expressly forbid the accumulation of multiple smaller parcels, combined, then used to build apartment buildings 38 times larger than the nearest single family house. For over three hours, those in Council chambers listened as many impassioned people (several of whom had never set foot in Council chambers before) said the same thing over and over: Ann Arbor needs much more affordable housing stock. Many of those YPers and students who spoke on the subject mistakenly said that The Moravian was a project that would have expanded the affordable housing stock. In truth, by knocking down the existing houses, The Moravian project would result in a net loss of affordable housing stock rather than a net gain.
Go figure. Please.
The YPers had anecdotes: Their friends, they said, are leaving Ann Arbor. Their friends, they said, would love to live in Ann Arbor, but have to live in Ypsi because they just can’t find places to live in like, yep, The Moravian. Long-time Main Street business owners (Newcombe Clark served on the Board of the Main Street Area Association) came forward to support the Moravian. Over and again employers told stories about how their employees needed “affordable housing.” It was the largest single dose of paternalism I’ve swallowed in quite some time. If these Main Street employers want their employees to be able to live in Ann Arbor, perhaps the employers should pay a wage commensurate with the cost of living in Ann Arbor. Then again, paying a 25-year-old bartender $65,000 per year is not a business model that would work for our local Main Street eateries.
A U of M Professor, snugly tucked away in her Burns Park house, far from the proposed development, talked about the housing needs of her post-docs with a level of concern that I can only hope gets a write up in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Post-doc, for those who’ve never been one, or known one, is the academic equivalent of an indentured servant. Our pro-Moravian Prof., told Council she has a tough time recruiting post-docs because of (if you work in Academe try not to guffaw, please) the housing situation in Ann Arbor. For those who don’t work in Academe, let me explain. There are exponentially more students with doctorates (post-docs) than post-doc positions; it’s a research prof’s market. That’s why post-docs get paid peanuts and work like beasts of burden. Lack of affordable housing is not the main concern of, say, officials at the American Federation of Teachers, who are working to improve the lives of the several hundred thousand post-docs in the United States, including those who work for our pro-Moravian prof. Low pay and outlandish professional exploitation are the main concerns, and have been for the past 30 years as the number of post-docs has proliferated.
Joan Lowenstein, former Second Ward Council member and Newcombe Clark’s colleague on the Board of the Downtown Development Authority, stepped forward to urge Council not to give in to the “sulkers” who just want their own way, and who would stand between The Moravian and its PUD. It was a masterful performance full of contempt for those who are just, plain, spoiled sports about behemoth developments plopped down in the middle of quiet neighborhoods not zoned for behemoth developments. I have a feeling that had The Moravian been slated to go up next to Lowenstein’s house and on her block, we would have been treated to an armed insurrection in addition to plenty of sulking.
All in all, thanks to city planning staff, not to mention the members of the Planning Commission who recommended the PUD be approved, but who clearly didn’t read the city’s own PUD rules carefully enough, hours and hours of precious time were wasted on pleading the merits of a meritless PUD petition. Second Ward Council member Tony Derezinski voted in favor of the PUD based on the fact that the “professionals” had approved it. It should be noted that the work of those same professionals was methodically decimated by neighbors with city maps, planning experts, lawyers, and engineers employed by the Germantown Neighborhood Association.
I would argue that The Moravian debacle is proof positive that the “professionals” on the city staff and Planning Commission are few and far between. The Moravian Mess demonstrates quite clearly that a decade of giving away board and commission appointments at cocktail parties, and as plums to political supporters and donors, is wrecking havoc on the landscape of Ann Arbor. The seven members of the Planning Commission who voted to recommend that Council approve The Moravian PUD caused hours of Council’s time to be wasted in a fruitless public hearing, and on political posturing.
Ann Arbor needs more affordable housing stock. Absolutely. Does Ann Arbor “need” to do whatever it can to retain young professionals? Yes and no. It’s Gen X and Boomer employers who need to pay their Gen Y workers $35,000-$45,000 per year. These business owners want to push Ann Arbor into planning and public policy decisions that will benefit their businesses need to hire young workers, and pay them wages that result in a growing population that desperately needs “affordable” housing. Michigan is a “sticky state,” as I wrote in a previous entry titled “The Politics of Demographics: Why All the Hand-Wringing and Fuss Over Gen Y?”:
67.5 percent of people born in Michigan who are 18 years or older have stayed in Michigan. Conversely, only 22 percent of the people currently living in Michigan who are 18 years or older were born in another state. Sticky is where it’s at for demographers. According to the study, “In the Midwest, nearly half of adult residents say they have spent their entire lives in their hometown.” That, my fellow native Michiganians, is a huge home court advantage that local, not to mention state-wide politicians overlook in favor of attracting new people to Michigan, particularly Gen Yers. It’s a losing battle. That demographic is moving South and West, not into the heartland. Gen Xers will relocate to the Midwest for jobs, and do. Make Ann Arbor dual career couple heaven and the Gen Xers will come.
I almost went before the City Council at the public hearing last night and announced that I support the fantasy Moravian as talked about by those many young professionals who came before Council. That’s The Moravian with “affordable” rents around $800 for a 1-bedroom (at Zaragon Place, the rent per bedroom is $1,100) that really is a development aimed at young professionals.
However, the truth isn’t so pretty. This April 6, 2010 piece in The Michigan Daily throws down with the recent developments, including 4 Eleven Lofts, Zaragon Place and The Courtyards, purportedly built for “young professionals” as “over-priced luxury student housing.” The Manager of 4 Eleven Lofts was quoted in another Michigan Daily piece about the saturated rental market as saying, “As of the end of 2008, we had leased 4 Eleven Lofts to approximately 45 percent for the 2009-10 term, but by the end of 2009 we have already reached 65 percent occupancy for 2010-11.”
This May 2009 piece posted to the Concentrate Media web site, in fact, makes the absurd claim that Zaragon Place is for both students and young professionals. In April of 2010, Rick Pearlman, president of Zaragon Incorporated made clear the building’s target audience in an interview with The Daily: “It’s obvious. When you go around you see that most of (the student housing) is very old, very tried.” Local developer Peter Allen concurred, “The developers of these two developments know the campus. And they think they know the student values. So it was not a big leap of feasibility to think Zaragon and 4 Eleven Lofts would work here,” Allen said of the Chicago-based developers Zaragon Incorporated and Joseph Freed and Associates, who built Zaragon Place and 4 Eleven Lofts, respectively.
And The Moravian? More student housing. Glorified and expensive dorm rooms for students whose parents will pay the rents demanded of them for as long as their kids are enrolled at U of M. These developments are not about a vision of downtown density, or a vision for the landscape of the City of Ann Arbor. They are private dorms built in the middle of our downtown for a transient population. The Moravian is a private dorm whose developers want built in the middle of an established neighborhood for the simple reason that they bought up the parcels and want to recoup their investments.
It’s time for us all to have honest discussions about a long-term vision for the development of our downtown areas.
What I will never support is the use of PUDs to build high-rise student housing in our neighborhoods, or vote for a PUD to allow out-sized developments to “leak” outside the established boundaries of our downtown.
I fully support downtown development and density coupled with truly affordable housing—the need that was presented by those dozens of 25-35 year-old women and men who want to live within walking distance of jobs, restaurants and (some day) shopping. I wish they would run for office and vote with the same dedication they post to Facebook and Twitter. If they did, they might be better able to see through snow jobs like The Moravian, and into a future where our elected officials aren’t constantly seduced by the quick development buck, and who will demand professional work from both city planning staff, and appoint professionals to the Planning Commission who will never send clearly flawed planning decisions to Council to waste the time of elected officials and citizens, alike.
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