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Issues of the Environment: Zoning the future of Ann Arbor

Ellie Abrons, Associate Professor of Architecture at the University of Michigan and a Planning Commissioner for the City of Ann Arbor.
Taubman College
The University of Michigan
Ellie Abrons, Associate Professor of Architecture at the University of Michigan and a Planning Commissioner for the City of Ann Arbor.


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and welcome to this week's edition of Issues of the Environment. I'm David Fair, and I don't need to tell you that Ann Arbor is changing. It is evolving. And part of meeting the future is to make the zoning and development decisions of today. To help us better understand the complexities of meeting the present and future needs of the city in the context of zoning, we've invited Ellie Abrons to join us. Ellie comes at these issues as both an associate professor of architecture at the University of Michigan and as a member of the Ann Arbor Planning Commission. Thank you for making the time for us today.

Ellie Abrons: I'm happy to be here.

David Fair: We are in the midst of that societal and evolutionary kind of community change, and character is very much a part of the discussion when it comes to the future of Ann Arbor. As I'm sure you've experienced as a member of the Planning Commission, not everyone is in agreement. Some want to maintain a more historic sense of community. Others would like bigger, taller and higher density housing in the city and the manner in how we function with a highly populated and traveled community. What impact does public input have on the manner in which you work as a Planning Commission?

Ellie Abrons: Public input is very important to the Planning Commission. We provide a lot of opportunities for the public to speak to us, to write to us. We take into consideration all formats of public input. And I think we, as you mentioned, are currently trying to balance a variety of public sentiment and desires about the community they live in and the community they would like to live in.

David Fair: Earlier this week, I was talking to a few folks about our upcoming conversation, and we were discussing zoning just a bit, and it became very clear to me that none of us at the table really knew much about zoning. Is it fair to say that zoning is critical in helping define a community's character?

Ellie Abrons: Oh, yes, certainly. I mean, zoning is the way in which a community can establish certain guidelines for development in different kinds of neighborhoods. So, broadly speaking, zoning is divided into certain categories, like residential or commercial manufacturing, and is a way for our community to have some input and make a plan for the kinds of development they want in certain parts of the city.

David Fair: In making decisions that help determine the shape and future of the City of Ann Arbor. I imagine your background in architecture and systems and design is rather exciting to you.

Ellie Abrons: It is. Yeah. It's been an incredible opportunity to serve the community in this way, and I think we're at a particular moment where the urgencies of things, like climate change and addressing carbon emissions and thinking about sustainable futures combined with pressures we're seeing on housing, are meeting other desires for maintaining the things about the community that people enjoy--you know, these various factors that we need to kind of take together when we think about the future of the community. Those are things that I also think about as an architect: of course, housing and sustainability in particular.

David Fair: We were talking with Ann Arbor Planning Commissioner Ellie Abrons about zoning on WEMU's Issues of the Environment. I want to hearken to a recent example. The Planning Commission approved a new Taco Bell drive thru restaurant in the 600 block of Plymouth Road. That's an area that is already vehicle-centric. What went into approval of something that may not necessarily be best fit into the city's longer-range goals and aspirations?

Ellie Abrons: The City of Ann Arbor and thinking about these sustainability goals that the city has adopted, and also pressures on the housing market and the housing crisis where we're seeing a real shortage of affordable housing for the people who work in our city. A number of years ago, I believe 2021, we approved a new zoning district, which is called Transit Corridor. You might hear people refer to it in its shorthand as TC one. So, this was a zoning district that was intended to allow mixed-use development along transit corridors on Eisenhower or Stadium Boulevard. And there are two corridors which are kind of in the pipeline for being rezoned for this new, mixed-use development. One of those is this stretch of Plymouth Road, where this restaurant, came before the commission--the Taco Bell that you mentioned. And so, I think one thing that the commission had to deliberate or grapple with was that this was a corridor which, in the very near future, is kind of on the docket to be rezoned as this mixed-use, TC one district, but it has not yet been. And the petitioner wanted to demolish, for the most part, the Wendy's and replace it with the Taco Bell and keep the existing drive thru lane. And so, the tension there is really about a near future possibility where this parcel could have been rezoned to TC one and then opened up to other kinds of development that might include housing. It might also include a fast food restaurant, but maybe with housing above, but a more dense development. But because that had not yet happened, Taco Bell kind of met the existing zoning, saying that zoning is law. So, the city has ordinances, and if projects meet the requirements of those written ordinances, then we have an obligation as a commission and as a city to approve those kinds of developments. So, I think there was a bit of regret here. I would say that this parcel had not yet been rezoned and is right about to be rezoned for something that the community needs a little bit better.

David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and our Issues of the Environment conversation with Ann Arbor Planning Commissioner and U of M Associate Professor of Architecture Ellie Abrons continues. When we talk about affordable housing as part of the future of Ann Arbor, how is zoning ordinance and how will the transit corridor going to better address the issue?

Ellie Abrons: Well, zoning has a tremendous impact on the kind of development that happens in the city. So, for example, most of the private property in the City of Ann Arbor, and actually in the country at large, is limited to only being developed for single family homes. So, you can imagine how that might limit our ability to provide more housing. And so, in particular, for transit corridor zoning, this TC one zoning, it would allow bigger buildings that might provide more residential units. That means things that can be taller. It also limits parking. You can have parking in parking structures, but it limits street parking. And there's a desire there to think about--some people might say storage for cars--being less emphasized in our city and prioritizing homes for people over car storage.

David Fair: We're essentially trying to retrofit a city. In your mind's eye, what will Ann Arbor look like a generation down the road?

Ellie Abrons: I think, to a large degree, Ann Arbor will look similar to the way that it does now. I think that there are things we can do. Some people might call missing middle housing or gentle density ways that we can incrementally provide more housing within the existing infrastructure and kind of built environment of the city. If you travel around Ann Arbor into the neighborhoods, you'll find pockets where you'll see duplexes or quadplexes. Those would be buildings with two units or four units mixed in with single family residential in a way that doesn't really radically alter the character of the neighborhoods. We also have, in recent years, provided the opportunity for homeowners to build ADU's, which is an accessory dwelling unit. So, a small rental unit on the same lot on the parcel of their single family home, so that you might use that for families. Some people call it an in-law suite and might allow people to age in place. So, these are kind of strategies for incrementally increasing our density. I think we will also see denser development in the downtown area and some of the areas around the University of Michigan campus. I hope that we see a real increase in affordable housing. The city is doing a lot of work to develop affordable housing on a number of city-owned parcels, which primarily right now are used for parking. And so, I think we also want to think about affordable commercial development. I know that many people in our community value independent small businesses and want to see our city supporting the livelihood of those businesses as well. So, I think, hopefully, we see a less car-centric, more pedestrian-friendly, slightly more dense city that can accommodate the people who want to live here. And some 80,000 people a day commute in and out of our city to work. And the more of those people that we can actually house within our town and cut down on the vehicle miles traveled, it will really help us meet our sustainability goals. It's really about accommodating people--some people who already work here, but who want to live here in our community.

David Fair: As you assess all of those potential changes, does it in your mind change the nature and culture of how Ann Arborites feel about their hometown?

Ellie Abrons: You know, I hear a lot of people worrying about the character of our town, and, certainly, I have lived here about 15 years, and it's a place that I love and have enjoyed living in. And I understand the things that people value about our town. But I also think it's important to understand that we can't hold on to that at the expense of making the city one that other people can also enjoy. So, I think most of us would agree that we want Ann Arbor to be an inclusive place. And, for me, my priority would be figuring out a way that our city can be welcoming and inclusive to the people who want to live here, as opposed to an exclusive enclave where most people can no longer afford to move here. I think other people will deserve the opportunity if they want to live here, to work here, to raise their children here. And I wouldn't want to prohibit that by being resistant to change. I think that we need to understand how to be more open to that kind of change and think about how we can accommodate that change in a sustainable and responsible way.

David Fair: I'd like to thank you for taking the time to spend with me today and sharing your perspective. I appreciate it.

Ellie Abrons: Thank you.

David Fair: That is Ellie Abrons. She is both an associate professor of architecture at the University of Michigan and a member of the Ann Arbor Planning Commission. For more information on our conversation, visit our web site at your convenience at WEMU dot org. Issues of the Environment is produced in partnership with the office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner, and you hear it every Wednesday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR Station, 89 one WEMU FM, Ypsilanti.

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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