Seven years ago when John Hieftje was elected mayor of Ann Arbor, there were no hybrid buses, the word Greenbelt – now a program providing funding for the city to secure and preserve undeveloped areas around the city limits – was more strongly associated with fashion than city planning, and most current students were still in high school. Now it’s hard to imagine Ann Arbor without the hyper-environmentally conscious mayor’s influence.

Angela Cesere
(Courtesy of John Hieftje)

Here, Hieftje talks about the relationship between town and gown, his goals for the city’s energy consumption, his favorite restaurant and why it’s taken so long for the Greenbelt to acquire more than a few hundred acres of land.

– I teach a class at the Ford School, so I have a lot of interaction with students. One of the things I’ve always said is while it’s true most students won’t be here for very long, each one is filling a spot that, even though it’s rotating, is an important part of the community. Anyone who steps back and looks at it realizes students make a huge contribution to life in Ann Arbor.

– My favorite restaurant is Zanzibar. I shouldn’t say that. I like all the restaurants in Ann Arbor, but often when my wife and I have a chance to go out to dinner we go to Zanzibar.

– So far, the city has bought about almost 800 acres of or development rights with the Greenbelt taxes, and it’s poised to buy more now that the real estate market is down. There’s a silver lining to the market downturn for the Greenbelt. Many more applications have come in and soon we’ll have five to seven thousand acres around the city. We expect to have that accomplished by about 2015.

– The revenue that we’re collecting doesn’t matter that much in terms of the land we’re buying right now. We’re using it to work with farmers and developers and we’re buying bonds. We still have another 20 million to go, and working with all our partners, that will be magnified.

– One of the problems that students encounter being involved in city government is that it’s a long-term, year-round commitment. This acts to limit student involvement.

But students still find a way to be involved; for example, they were the force behind my sponsoring the lease-signing ordinance. This year, students have been working with landlords to come up with some modest changes that will make more user-friendly for all.

– Back in 2005, I issued the Mayor’s Green Energy Challenge, which calls for the city to 30 percent renewable energy by 2010. We’re at 18 percent now. And we’re on the way. Just look at what we’ve announced in a three-week period.

– Two weeks ago, we received national press for being the first city in the country to convert all the light fixtures in our downtown streetlights to environmentally friendly LEDs. It’s a $650,000 program with a four-year payback because LED’s are 50 percent more efficient and they last 10 years, versus two. When we are finished with downtown, we’ll turn to replacing the rest of the streetlights in the city.

– Last week, we announced that in working with the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority, we’re replacing our buses with U.S.-made hybrid models using bio-diesel and regenerative braking to charge the batteries. Under 25 miles per hour, they’re running completely on electricity and they’re 30 to 50 percent more fuel-efficient. Five more arrive in the spring – that’ll give us 20, and that’s more than a quarter of the fleet with more to come.

– It’s going to take at least five years for the city to shake off the impact of the Pfizer plant closing, but I think at that point the city will be better off in a lot of ways. SO many of our eggs won’t be in the same basket anymore. It’s going to take a while, but there’s some very good work being done to rebuild the tax base that Pfizer represented.

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