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The Green Room: Urban Living Density—A Negative Or A Positive?

Every parcel slated for development comes with a host of environmental considerations, from stormwater control to cleanup of soil contamination.  Two of the considerations most hotly debated in the Ann Arbor area are greenspace and density.  In this month’s “Green Room” segment we look at the question, “How does density impact our quality of life, and the health of our environment?”  

David Fair:   City living is back in vogue.  From millennial's to retirees, many are looking to move to cities, to get to work and enjoy city amenities, without a long commute.  But for those already there, new, potentially taller buildings, or losing open space, can be bones of contention. In this installment of WEMU’s “The Green Room,” Barbara Lucas looks at two parcels in Ann Arbor where new developments are proposed, and those disparate points of view are highlighted. 

Barbara Lucas (BL):  Back in the 1960s and ‘70s, it seemed to be generally accepted that urban density was a stressor, on humans, and the earth.  The countryside beckoned, or at least the wide open spaces of the suburbs.  For decades, there was a steady population flow out of many of our urban areas. As suburbs grew, commute times lengthened, houses got bigger, and the use of fossil fuels escalated.  

(BL):I’m looking through a chain link fence at an empty, six and a half acre lot in Ann Arbor’s Lower Town. It’s a half-mile from University of Michigan Hospital. There used to numerous businesses here that served the surrounding neighborhood, including a big Kroger grocery store. But, when the customers left, so did the businesses.  Now, the tides are turning again, and Lower Town’s walkable location is being eyed as a prime spot for new housing.

(BL): Now, I’m at a public meeting held by Morningside Development.  The company recently purchased Lower Town’s former Kroger lot.  Company officials show off a design that if approved, would house about 900 people, in three separate buildings.  Various questions and concerns from current neighbors included this comment about the height.

Meeting participant 1: Seven stories in this neighborhood is way too high.   

BL:  Some would rather see more new retail.

Meeting participant 2:  Is there any way we can we get a decent grocery store there?  There’s nothing to attract people there.  The traffic just goes by!

BL:  Morningside explains that a full service grocery requires more customers. In other words, more density.  Some worry about more cars further congesting the area.

Meeting participant 3:  We as residents are getting squeezed out from all sides by increased use of our infrastructure.

BL:  Morningside says its design will promote a less car-centric lifestyle.  It calls for interior, secure, bike-parking for each resident.  And with a la carte pricing, renters wouldn’t have to pay for a car parking space, if they chose, instead, to utilize the nearby car-share, bus line or bicycle trails. 

Morningside:  We are really serious about these alternative modes of transportation.  We think this location is tremendously bikeable.

BL:  Some are wondering if more housing might actually decrease congestion in the area. Patrick Commiskey is a medical student at the hospital.

Patrick Commiskey:  I think a lot of the traffic that you see there, honestly, is not from residents that live there, it's from people driving in and out of the hospital, people that work at the hospital and live in Brighton and so forth that need to drive in and park at that lot on Maiden Lane.

BL:  He’s referring to a big new parking structure the University built.  The University’s master plan has yet another parking structure planned in Lower Town, where work force housing once stood.  But some would like to see new housing “in-filled” in core urban areas, rather than pave over the “greenfields,” outside of town.

Matt Grocoff:  Building in Brownfields—places we've already built—it has extraordinary carbon impacts by keeping people close together.

BL:  That’s Matt Grocoff, a sustainable building developer and consultant, who has a plan for another parcel in Ann Arbor. 

Grocoff: The success comes out of this adjacency. Being near your food source, being near your energy source, being near your work, being near your neighbors.  That’s what density gives you.  That ability to be near the things you do.  When you have that, and when you have these connected ecosystems, you have a much lower distribution cost.

BL: He says through innovative designs, living closer together can bring multiple benefits on top of lowering carbon footprints—from affordability, to social interaction and community resiliency—without feeling cooped up.  He shows me an example.

Grocoff:  Within a neighborhood that has these beautiful, cottage-style homes, you can create a larger home that is actually divided up into several apartments.  So what Russ Chapin has done here, he’s created what they call “Micro-housing”: these smaller units 350 to 450 square feet, having a shared common space within that home. So it's one home with four apartments, each operating independently with a shared chef’s kitchen, a large dining room, a large living room sitting area, flat screen TV, bathroom and laundry room.

BL:  In this design, instead of large isolated homes and yards, Grocoff says residents have some private space, and a lot of shared space:  friendly wraparound front porches, shared tools and storage, pathways, play areas, and community gardens.  Through the efficient use of space, he says we can respect our need for green, open areas, by weaving them right into the design of the new neighborhood.

Grocoff:  We need more parks, we need more green space, there's no question. But we also cannot continue to push human development further and further outside of cities. Taking up agricultural lands, taking up green space, greenfields. We need to be preserving those spaces as much as we can, and building on places we've already built on.

BL:  Speaking of, Grocoff and his partners have put together a proposal for a vacant lot along Platt Road in Ann Arbor. They call it “Veridian at County Farm.” It’s one of six different proposals under consideration by the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners.  I head over to the parcel, where the Juvenile Detention Center was torn down a few years ago. I pass some yard signs, urging “Save the Land.” Apparently, some of the neighbors like the new open space. 

Daniel Himebaugh: It could be expanded for some small sports play areas.

BL: Daniel Himebaugh lives nearby.  He wants the thirteen acres to be added to the 127 acres of County Farm Park, next door.  

Himebaugh: It’s not just what I think.  I’ve talked with over a hundred people.

BL:  He says of those hundred folks he approached in county farm park, only four said they would like housing instead of parkland on the Platt Road site. 

Himebaugh: I did a calculation, and if the population grows at ¾ of a percent for the next one-hundred years, the population of Ann Arbor will about double.

BL: All those people, Himebaugh says, will need parks.  But he also mentions that he did look at the six development proposals, and one in particular caught his eye.

Himebaugh: Veridian was going to be solar powered.  And it was very interesting, and I’m an environmentalist, and I believe global warming is probably true.

BL:  So why don’t you support that proposal? 

Himebaugh: I do, but not here!

BL:  Some would say you already have a park here though?

Himebaugh: But I say expand it, because the population in a hundred years…. and if you don't save the property now… Once you build houses on this it's gone forever, you'll never get it back.

BL: Apparently, people can equally value sustainability, but have very different ideas of what that means, and how best to achieve it.  As city and county leaders and citizens continue to debate what to do with the open space we have left, the conversation will continue. 


Chapter on Lower Town in City of Ann Arbor Master Plan   

Medical Center Master Plan 2005

MLive articles on Lower Town lot

Development proposals being considered for the Platt Road site

Chart comparing proposals being considered for Platt Road site

MLive article on the six proposals being considered for the Platt Road site

Citizens for Responsible Planning for Platt Road

Barbara received a master's degree in Environmental Policy from the University of Michigan. She began her association with WEMU in 2003 as an intern with Washtenaw County, assisting with the weekly "Issues of the Environment" show. In 2003 she also began working in documentary film, and later established her own video production company.