A conference of city residents, architects and developers deliberated last Thursday whether to build a new swath of highrises in downtown Ann Arbor. Residents faced off against planners and a consultant hired by the city to assist drawing up development plans. While residents objected, mainly citing aesthetic concerns, proponents pointed to reports projecting an influx of 5,000 new residents in the downtown area by 2030. While being as sensitive to resident concerns as possible, city officials should embrace vertical development as the most efficient and environmentally sensitive way to cope with new population pressures. If that means the skyline will be cluttered with new highrises, then residents will have to cope.
Absorbing 5,000 new residents over the course of a few decades without adequate development planning is dangerous for an already dense city like Ann Arbor. Absent such foresight, the typical 11th-hour alternative for planners is the construction of smaller buildings that spread horizontally rather than vertically. While such a solution might be amiable to those who want to freeze the downtown area in its present state, by every other measure it is a failure. Building small buildings over a large area leads to Detroit-style urban sprawl. As happened in that city, urban sprawl consumes green areas, promotes economic and racial segregation and most important for students, does absolutely nothing to increase housing and reduce rents near the campus area. Putting up smaller buildings is also far less cost-effective for developers, who need more floors and thus more tenants in order to turn a profit. The resulting combination of both fewer and smaller new buildings will be the death knell of affordable housing near campus and a sprawl-less Ann Arbor.
The main objection against building vertically comes from a handful of present high-rise residents living near several sites of planned high-rises who complain that their views would be somewhat obstructed. Because there are no other suitable sites downtown, their objections cannot be heeded without preventing any high-rise construction. It would be unwise to allow this shortsighted, not-in-my-backyard attitude to take precedence over responsible downtown development. Furthermore, the aesthetic gains from slowing urban sprawl alone are immensely greater than the partial obstruction of a view. It is imperative that these highrises be built for the good of students and residents alike.
New development must move forward to maintain our present standard of living. Not developing downtown effectively signs Ann Arbor up to the Detroit experience – urban sprawl with all its bleak consequences. Committing Ann Arbor’s development to this miserable plan solely in order to preserve the window views and aesthetic sensibilities of a few is both foolish and unnecessary.