David Betts: Ann Arbor's new downtown

BY DAVID BETTS: PONTIFICATIONS

Published September 13, 2005

Peter Calthorpe changed my life. It was Winter term 2004 and the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning held a series of debates about urban design - The Michigan Debates on Urbanism. The only reason I went to the debate about New Urbanism is because my Architecture 212 GSI was offering extra credit for attendance. The only reason I was even in Architecture 212 was because of a childhood desire to design the next Tiger Stadium, and even though I had missed that opportunity, I decided I might as well see what this architecture stuff was about.

Sarah Royce

The first presenter of the evening was Peter Calthorpe, an urban designer from California. During his presentation, he talked about some of the basic ideas behind New Urbanism: the need for mixed-use development, walkability, not conceding to the car as the only form of transportation and humane, people-oriented design. Something about his presentation was enchanting and by the end of the night, I was basically opposed to the suburb in all forms. I always felt weird about building subdivisions on what used to be cornfields, but Calthorpe's lecture on New Urbanism as a movement gave me the ammunition to express my discomfort with suburbia as I knew it.

As a nationwide movement, New Urbanism is picking up significant steam. Inspired by the likes of Jane Jacobs, author of "Death and Life of American Cities," and the failures of many cities to deal with their loss of population and the growth of their surrounding suburbs, New Urbanism makes the pedestrian its focus. The Congress For the New Urbanism gives out annual awards to the architecture and design projects around the world that best represent the goals of New Urbanism. The Michigan Land Use Institute's ideas for smart growth are based loosely on concepts of New Urbanism. At some point, the city of Ann Arbor started to pay attention to New Urbanism and hired Calthorpe's firm to make recommendations for increasing residential density in the downtown/campus area.

In late July 2005, I attended the first public planning workshop that is a part of Calthorpe Associates' process. Held in the ballroom of a senior citizen building downtown, I was the only black person in the room and one of about 20 of more than 200 who was under 25 years of age. There was a tangible sense in the building that people wanted downtown to stay as is. One person in my group during the workshop was wholly opposed to high-rise buildings of any kind. Even when the room reached a consensus that a high rise building for this exercise was only 4-8 stories tall, hardly a skyscraper, she was still so upset that she decided to protest the validity of the entire activity.

Whether people like it or not, Ann Arbor and the surrounding communities will grow. To accommodate that growth, the area will either have to build out or build up. Based on the fact that there is significant opposition to building out (The Greenbelt is proof of this.) and opposition to building up downtown (as mentioned ab ove), it would be safe to assume that Ann Arbor is at an impasse. Well, that assumption would be wrong.

The solution to Ann Arbor's downtown density concerns is to create a second satellite downtown, specifically the area around Briarwood Mall. Currently, the intersection of State and Eisenhower is the epitome of a concession to the automobile. Surrounded by office buildings separated from the street by large grass berms and surface parking, State and Eisenhower is a painfully misused area. Right now there is a mini boom in office construction in the area, but the lack of respect for the pedestrian will only exacerbate the horrendous traffic flow.

Wolverine Tower, the University-owned building on the Southwest corner of the State and Eisenhower intersection, is a five- to 10-minute walk from Briarwood Mall - easily walking distance. However, people would be considered out of their minds to cross State Street to get from one destination to the other. If residential development were to be introduced immediately surrounding a reconstituted, Town Center-style Briarwood Mall, the area could be turned into a district that featured shopping, dining, employment and living. By increasing pedestrian access to the surrounding amenities, it could decrease auto-dependent living and give young people a reason to want to stay in the region as opposed to leaving the state for places like New York and Chicago.

The City of Ann Arbor should not be paying Calthorpe Associates $200,000 just to plan downtown Ann Arbor. While there is a need to use sound judgment when considering adding buildings downtown, there is also a need to increase residential density elsewhere in town. Ann Arbor needs to make plans to make Briarwood Mall its second downtown.

Betts can be reached at

djmbetts@umich.edu.