On Monday, January 13, The Ann Arbor City Council held a work session on the economic health of the area. The first two presentations were quite notable. They discussed the issues of growth and vitality of our area and gave suggestions of what we need to do for the future. These presentations are very informative and should be watched.
Lou Glazer, president of Michigan Future Inc., a nonprofit group focused on helping Michigan succeed in a knowledge-driven economy gave the first presentation. He spoke about how growth is tied to attracting millennials and how transit is a big part of that. Millennials want to live in a 24/7 downtown area where there is transit, so that they don’t need a car. He showed data that explained that growth in population was linked to where Millennials moved after college graduation. His presentation is very good. Watch it here (18 min)
Paul Krutko, president and CEO of economic development group Ann Arbor SPARK gave the second presentation regarding an update on the economic development in the area along with a video. He spoke about how we have a talent driven economy and how the Ann Arbor region compares to other regions. (18 min)
He also showed a video about spark (4min)
I am not going to give a summary or rehash of what was said (listen to the video to hear it in their own words)
Ryan Stanton also has a very good summary of the meeting in his article on MLIVE, “Enticing millennials to Ann Arbor: Experts offer advice to city leaders.”1
What I do want to address in this weeks post are some of the questions that were asked at council after the presentations.
Should these be valid questions?
Sally Peterson asked this question which sort of bothered me:
“I hear a lot about the need to attract the young urban millennials to the downtown area, their desires for a 24/7 neighborhood. Suppose we were to make that happen? What is the risk of frustrating, annoying, driving away all the families that live in the non-24/7 neighborhoods but also within the city of Ann Arbor? How do we balance the need to preserve the neighborhoods that we think of as the traditional neighborhoods with this new sort of non-stop millennial non-stop energy downtown.”
Paul Krakow answered that there are plenty of areas around the country that show examples of this. See the video below for a more complete answer
Cm Peterson then asked a follow-up that actually bothered me even more:
What are the specific benefits that are yielded to the neighborhoods by virtue of having millennials downtown?
Lou Glazer gave this specific answer.:
“There’s got to be a way that the boomers and the millennials can live together, or else communities aren’t going to work. Michigan’s problem at the moment is that, not only are we less educated than the country, but we’re aging faster than the country, and we have to figure this out. So, if our politics is ‘if the boomers don’t like it, we’re not going to do it,’ it ain’t good for the long-term health of the community, and it ain’t good for them, either.”
My issue with this is not ‘how’ CM Peterson asked this question or necessarily ‘why’. It is simply that…..should these even be considered valid questions? The ‘attitude’ and ’tone’ behind the question is exactly what is wrong with Ann Arbor. Many people in Ann Arbor live in this self imposed bubble where they think that time stands still and nothing goes on outside of the freeway ring that encircles the city. Some of our residents have become isolationists. They do not want any outsiders moving into the city, but if they do then they need to be just like them, live like them and think like them. Do Boomers and Families get to decide who exactly the future residents (growth) of Ann Arbor should be? If they get frustrated and leave, is there actually another place that would be all that different for them to move to?
We have experts giving presentations on the economic vitality of the city. They are telling us that we have not grown in population over the past years and that the population has been holding constant. They give data and facts stating that the key to growth all over the country is to build areas where the younger generation wants to live. The 24/7 downtown walkable communities is where they want to be.
They are giving the warning that those cities that do not grow, will die. Currently residents do not notice any negative consequences due to lack of growth because we still have an equal amount of residents moving into the city versus moving out. But what happens when we have more people leaving the city than who want to move here? Will it be too late to do anything at that time? Will the slow death of the downtown be stoppable?
This mindset is disturbing. Residents of Ann Arbor do not get a say in how others choose to live their lives. They do not get to dictate their values on to others who want something different. If the younger generation wants to rent instead of owning a home, then so what? It is none of their business. And it is surely none of their business if it is clear across the city from their neighborhood. If you don’t want to live in a 24/7 neighborhood, then don’t move downtown….don’t go downtown. The boomers and families do not get to dictate what goes on all over the city, for all residents…period.. They do not get to impede a change that is inevitable. It is not an acceptable or a valid idea that current residents can dictate their housing choices on to others.
Some who live in the near downtown neighborhoods get up in arms over any development that is proposed downtown. You bought your house near a walkable city center for a reason….simply because you like that lifestyle. As everything in life, nothing stands still. You can’t insist everything stay just as it was when you moved in. I grew up in a suburb with empty lots on each street with some streets only partially built upon. Now all lots have been built on and the blocks are all filled in with houses. Would it be reasonable for me to think that every lot would stay not built. If you buy a house with an empty lot next door, is it reasonable to think no one will ever build on it?
CM Peterson asks how can we preserve the traditional neighborhoods? I don’t understand how a 24/7 downtown neighborhood affects the so-called ‘traditional’ neighborhoods at all. Millennials are not asking to tear down and replace a ‘traditional’ neighborhood with a new downtown center. Millennials simply want to grow the downtown neighborhood that already exists and modernize it. Many people tend to forget that the downtown is and always has been a neighborhood. It might not be the type of neighborhood that some want to live in, but nonetheless, it is a fully functional neighborhood.
A fact is that downtown neighborhoods were the original neighborhoods. People used to live near downtown and IN THE DOWNTOWN, in large cities and small, all over this country. It was suburban sprawl that moved many people to the outskirts of downtowns and to the outskirts of the city of Ann Arbor. Now the “newer’ outskirt neighborhoods are now ‘traditional’ and the original downtown centric neighborhood is now incomprehensible. Go figure?
So now I can hear some of you thinking, ‘ We don’t care how they want to live (dictate their lifestyle), we just don’t want to look at the types of buildings that the millennials want to live in.’
Really? Well maybe I don’t want to look at the old rundown houses throughout the city that some classify as wonderfully historic. Maybe I don’t want to look at the new modern day colonials. Maybe I think there should only be three bedroom ranch houses built. You don’t get to dictate architecture just because you were born first. Although there is a building code that is updated to reflect modern values for the city, that is not what this discussion is about. The code exists and is followed. Absent a movement to change the code, residents do not get to dictate how a population wants to live if there is a valid market for the need.
Now I am not going to get into the arguments about building height or mass. My point is not to say that all buildings no matter the design have to be palatable to the community. That’s silly. My point is that the tone in the question regarding how not to offend the ‘boomers’ and families’ by allowing another classification of people to live how they want and in whatever type of neighborhood they desire is clearly not acceptable IMO. if Millennials want to live in apartment buildings in the downtown and the boomers and families want to keep out that sort of housing or density than that is completely unacceptable.
Others of you may now be thinking that you are a taxpayer and you should have a say in what goes on in every neighborhood in the city. You don’t. Ann Arbor is a big city with many needs and wants. Different neighborhoods have different cultures and different needs. We all don’t get to dictate our tastes everywhere. After all, I don’t get a say in how a bunch of rich people in ward 2 get to use a city owned golf course that loses money year after year at the expense of the general fund as their backyard.
It is NOT acceptable to allow people to think that they have a choice to be offended over millennials wanting a 24/7 lifestyle downtown. I take issue with the notion that some want to appease “frustrated and annoyed” residents for being ….well….ageist.2
Are Millennials subjects of a new type of “ageism”?
The frustrated boomers and families don’t want those pesky whippersnapper millennials around. They don’t want them here…they will ruin the traditional neighborhoods. I couldn’t help but think how this is the same racist or exclusionary language that has been used throughout time, in any location, when a new group of people try to move into a neighborhood. Whether that group was comprised of African Americans, non-christians (jews, muslims), poor people, immigrants, etc. Is the dispute over the downtown really a way of keeping out THOSE people. The tone and underlying message smacks of this sort of thing. At least that is how it sounds to me.
CM Peterson actually asks what are the benefits yielded to the neighborhoods for having (or did she mean allowing) Millennials downtown? Why does it have to benefit them at all? I did not realize that this was a trade off. What is the benefit to having families in the city? What is the benefit to having the elderly in the city. Why does each group have to benefit the other group?
So I guess my real problem with all this is that I don’t think a councilmember should encourage this type of ageist thinking to just appease his/her constituents. If you substituted in African American or Immigrants in for the words millennials or students in to all the residents complaints, would the discussion still be held and be so blatantly discriminatory? If we used the terms age diversity (similar to race diversity) instead of increased growth spurred by millennials, then people would see more clearly how their discussion sounds. Would we want to appease frustrated residents who were advocating for a white christian only city because that is how it was in the past? No, we would not. So why are we trying to appease some residents who want to keep the downtown free of millennials.
Now don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that any councilmember is intentionally trying to be ageist….well I hope not at least I just don’t think many have thought about how their discussions or constituents attitudes may appear to others.
When should a councilmember go rogue
There have been some councilmembers who have stated publicly that they think they should do what their constituents want regardless or what is in the best interest of the city. Ignoring the argument that the loudest people screaming through their emails might not actually be what the majority of residents want, I give you a scenario in a simplified version to show you why this is not an optimal way to act.
Suppose the city is in need of purchasing some sort of DESSERT. The choices that the public sees, that they comment on and that they send opinions to council are their opinions on COOKIES or CAKE. The community is split on this…half want cookies, half want cake. However the council knows about a third less popular option…FRUIT. The fruit is a dessert, is sweet, and is better (healthier) for the city than the cookies or cake. The fruit could be cheaper, will be better for the city in the future, and is clearly the better choice.
Should the councilmember still vote for cookies or cake when clearly it is not the best thing for the city? If the council cannot convince the residents that fruit is clearly the best option, do they give into the pressure or do what is in the best interest of the city and vote for the fruit anyway?
Now the choice is between cake and fruit. Fruit is clearly better, but for whatever reason the public wants the cake. The majority of the public wants the cake; the community is not split. The councilmember recognizes that we must choose the fruit for the city to prosper. Do they act like a leader and choose the fruit? Or do they succumb to the selfishness of choosing cake?
A real leader would vote for the fruit, knowing that it is the right thing to do. Sometimes the public does not know all the facts, is scared of change or cannot envision a different alternative. But then some would ask how detrimental would cake actually be? It may not be as good as fruit but may be good enough for dessert? However, the real question is how bad would fruit be if selected as the dessert. The difference is in extra (or future) potential. They both can serve as a dessert, but the cake has no additional benefits where the fruit has additional health benefits.
We elect our local officials based on their judgement, not to necessarily vote exactly how we want. The only person who thinks exactly how you do…well…is only you. You elect them to use their judgement on complex issues, to dig deep into the facts, learn all the intricacies and to respond appropriately. I don’t expect them to knowingly cast votes that are against the best interest of the city because some constituents are unhappy. I don’t expect to always get my way…take the golf course example again….because I am not arrogant enough to think that I know all the facts. Hey, there could be a good reason that a bunch of rich people get to use a city-owned golf course that loses money year after year at the expense of general fund dollars for their backyards. What do I know?
I think this issue about economic vitality of the region is one of those issues that may be too broad for the general public too understand or for them to want to take the time to understand. This is one of those times where the public’s attitudes towards no growth should not be necessarily accepted as ok. We need growth in order for our region to prosper. If attracting millennials is the way to grow, then we need to figure out how to do that and begin implementing it. Offending the boomers and the families should be a low priority because quite honestly change happens everywhere and there will be no place for them to go.
contra bonos mores
1 Ryan Stanton, “Enticing millennials to Ann Arbor: Experts offer advice to city leaders.” MLIVE, January 16, 2014.
2 Ageism (also spelled “agism”)  is stereotyping and discriminating against individuals or groups on the basis of their age. This may be casual or systematic. The term was coined in 1969 by Robert Neil Butler to describe discrimination against seniors, and patterned on sexism and racism. Butler defined “ageism” as a combination of three connected elements. Among them were prejudicial attitudes towards older people, old age, and the aging process; discriminatory practices against older people; and institutional practices and policies that perpetuate stereotypes about older people