The following was originally published as part of my October 1, 2022 Newsletter in the “Additional Thoughts” section.
This week’s agenda includes several significant issues that Council has previously considered:
RIGHT TO RENEW
The “Right to Renew” ordinance amendment was approved unanimously at first reading on 9/19/22, with a lengthy bandwagon of cosponsors. I look forward to seeing it pass at second reading this week. I first proposed this policy in July 2021, when it could have been incorporated into (and used as a tool for enforcing) the Early Leasing Ordinance. In 2021, a majority of Council could not be persuaded to support Right to Renew, so the Early Leasing Ordinance was passed without the provision. That failure led to a leasing season in which many student tenants relied on the timeline described in the Early Leasing Ordinance (ELO) but the City had no effective method of enforcement (i.e. some landlords continued to lease housing units on an early timeline and tenants were displaced).
A draft of Right to Renew ordinance language was first sent to City Attorneys in March 2022 and has been delayed for months. The current ordinance includes explanation (recommended by City Attorneys) that it will not apply to any leases signed prior to enactment. The sudden Council enthusiasm for Right to Renew caught me by surprise at our last meeting. It is worth noting: approval of the Right to Renew ordinance was delayed long enough so that it will not apply to the many hundreds of student leases that were signed for the 2022-23 school year. At first reading, several Council members repeated the talking point that their delay of the Right to Renew ordinance had undoubtedly generated a better result. The actual result of the delay: two student leasing seasons have now passed without the benefit of this reform.
Agenda item C-1 is first reading for a proposed rezoning of 190 parcels (210 acres) at Stadium/Maple. The corridor would be rezoned to Transit Corridor District, TC-1.
The TC-1 zoning category was first applied to the Ward 4 corridor at South State Street and Eisenhower. When initially proposed, nearby residents expressed virtually no resistance or concerns about it. I am very familiar with this area of Ward 4 and I voted for the rezoning as a strategy to redevelop an area that currently provides almost no accessible benefit to the adjacent neighborhood. Critics of the State/Eisenhower rezoning pointed out that a significant portion of this corridor is owned or affiliated with a single business entity which, coincidentally, is a leading financial contributor to the Mayor and his allies.
In sharp contrast to the rezoning of State/Eisenhower, the current proposal for rezoning at Stadium/Maple has generated significant resistance and concern from area residents, who enjoy a relatively accessible corridor of retail there now. I wrote about the public engagement meeting that happened earlier this summer:
In response to concerns, City staff wrote a memo that offered a few ideas for adjustments to the proposed zoning district. Most notable: staff proposed that this corridor might be considered in parts rather than as a whole, acknowledging the fact that sections of this corridor are very very different. You can read that memo here:
This corridor is not a monolith: a large area to the northeast has no residential neighbors, but the western (and southeastern) section of this corridor is directly adjacent to neighborhoods. On streets like Burwood, Collingwood, and Pauline – where the zoning district boundary is drawn mid-block – the rezoning would place multi-story buildings in the literal backyards of relatively small, single story homes.
On July 26, 2022, City staff suggestions (including the idea to adjust height minimums in a small portion of the corridor) were considered and rejected by the four members of an Ordinance Revision Committee, a subset of the City Planning Commission. The recommendation of the Ordinance Revision Committee – to move forward without any changes or adjustments to the zoning district – was summarized in a City staff memo
That staff memo includes this explanation:
Staff have not incorporated any requests or comments into the proposed rezoning petition, other than those made by the Ordinance Revisions Committee. However, staff are ready to assist in revising the proposed ordinance to amend the Zoning Map at the direction of Planning Commission prior to its recommendation to City Council.
On August 16, 2022, the City Planning Commission (an unelected body of Mayoral appointees) discussed the issue. (Two commissioners with business/conflicts of interest in the area recused themselves, another commissioner was absent.) In the course of that debate, the chair of the Planning Commission (a landscape architect) identified a significant difference between the Stadium corridor and the State/Eisenhower area:
Part of me is a little bit hesitant to do the same thing we did on State and Eisenhower here in that the street structure feels really different to me than State and Eisenhower in terms of the experience of the pedestrian and green. I don’t know if you all addressed this in your discussions but if I look at the right of way along State and Eisenhower there is, for the most part, a robust green area and then the sidewalk where you can put lots of street trees and things like that and you have plenty of sight distance if you’re pulling forward to see pedestrians and things like that. Here, on Stadium, it is right up against the sidewalk. It’s the sidewalk and then the curb…in general I feel like the TC-1 somewhat fits but this part feels really different to me in terms of the character of this area versus State and Eisenhower… I’m just wondering if there’s any way to be able to tweak this so that it just feels more appropriate to what the reality is.
Further, she raised a serious safety concern: the minimal setbacks prescribed in this zoning district create a dangerous hazard on a corridor dominated by driveways. As currently configured, with large, open setbacks, vehicle traffic in and out of driveways on Stadium can at least see pedestrians and cyclists. I regularly bike this area to access retail and I must carefully watch out for vehicle traffic at these driveways. The TC1 zoning proposed for this corridor would permit zero setbacks — motorized and non-motorized traffic alike would struggle to even see oncoming traffic at these driveways.
I encourage anyone who might be interested in this issue to watch this part of the discussion at the City Planning Commission:
This past week, local residents organized a public meeting to discuss the details of this zoning proposal and likely consequences. None of the organizers opposed the idea of rezoning the area to promote increased, transit oriented development but – like the chair of the Planning Commission – they shared concerns about specific terms. I did not attend that meeting, but I was intrigued by the commentary I read online about it later. In various platforms of social media, proponents of this zoning category flatly dismissed or mocked anyone with skepticism as ignorant, self-interested “NIMBY’s.” As so often happens, loud voices online have characterized this issue in terms of broad insults, aggressively distorting a serious, complicated issue into a decidedly unserious, simplistic frame. Two Council Members in attendance at the meeting adopted an approach that was also not constructive: they responded to presentations from an attorney, real estate developer, and Harvard Ph.D. with general accusations of misinformation and bias.
Local policy like this one can and should be considered thoughtfully and seriously by your elected leaders.
BALLOT QUESTION: NON PARTISAN ELECTIONS
Agenda item DC-3 will be the third time that Council considers putting a ballot question to the voters for non-partisan local elections. Twice, a majority of Council voted to put this question to voters and twice the Mayor has vetoed it (July 2019 and August 2020).
I wrote about the ballot question for nonpartisan elections when it was proposed in July 2019:
I wrote about it when it was proposed again in August 2020:
I have consistently supported both nonpartisan elections and ranked choice voting. In August 2020, Council considered a ballot question for ranked choice voting. I voted in support of that ballot question but it was defeated. At the time, I wrote a lengthy explanation of why and how ranked choice voting, alone, did not effectively achieve the stated goals: “Ranked choice voting is clearly a much better measure of community preference (particularly among more than two candidates) but it works best outside of party primaries, where voters can rank multiple candidates regardless of party. If Ann Arbor aims to have inclusive elections that measure community preference best, our local contests must happen in November, when our student population is in town to vote.”
In August 2021, I joined a majority of Council in voting to approve a ballot question for ranked choice local elections. In November 2021, the question appeared on the ballot and was approved by voters. State law does not currently permit ranked choice voting, so the ballot question included a very big caveat, that such elections would only be adopted when and if State law ever changes to allow it, i.e. the question was entirely hypothetical, dependent on State action. If we were serious about the future implementation of ranked choice voting, then non-partisan elections in November are the most appropriate step in preparation for them.
I support ranked choice voting because it addresses the challenge of a three-way split. For example, in Ward 4, two of the last five Council races were won with a plurality rather than a majority. I also support more inclusive November elections that are likely to result in more participation. In the Democratic primary this past August, only 25% of registered voters participated. In addition to excluding many people on summer vacation, these August elections exclude all local residents who live here as students during the school year.
I recently stumbled on an excellent article that explains how ranked choice voting in 1975 elected the first (and only) African American mayor in Ann Arbor, Al Wheeler. At that time, our local government included a more progressive third party – the Human Rights Party – and local contests were decided in April, when students were in town.
I recognize the value of these ballot questions as an opportunity to include our community in important decision making. Only very specific policy matters even require a City vote (taxes/millage, charter amendments), all of which are worthy of local consideration and debate. It is a matter of trust: if we believe that Ann Arbor is a City of educated and thoughtful people, we should not fear a public vote on issues of importance.