Ann Arbor Area Parks and Greenbelt Proposal
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SPURIOUS, CURIOUS REASONING ON PROP B


I have just returned from Europe and painfully read the newspaper accounts of the many conflicting opinions expressed by respected friends and colleagues on Proposal B.

As polarizing as it may be among good and reasonable people, this is too important and pivotal a matter to muddle through with the convenient reasoning and flawed logic. In my opinion, there are many fallacies afloat.

Fallacy#1- HOUSING COSTS WILL GO UP. While passage of Prop B may marginally raise LAND costs, it doesn't necessarily mean HOUSING costs will go up. If building lots get smaller, housing costs can be contained and, if density goes up faster than land costs, housing can actually become more affordable. Reduced street and utility capital costs also help to lower housing prices.

Fallacy#2 -TAXES WILL GO UP. This is true only if millage goes up over time, which the voters decide. Taxes can can actually be better contained with compact development because infrastructure capital and maintenance costs are less per dwelling unit.

Fallacy#3 -LEAPFROGGING WILL HAVE A DELETERIOUS EFFECT. Leapfrogging has been going on for decades, as developers have sought and found ever-cheaper land by going further out. Although commute distances are increased, this pattern is superior to a continous carpet of suburban development, because it preserves pockets of green and habitat. Leapfrog development is okay if it is compact, environmentally sensitive, socio-economically diverse, close to existing infrastructure (including public transit), and built in smaller increments than the massive roof farms that we see replacing agricultural farms. And if the frog leaps into new or existing mixed-use villages, all the better.

Fallacy#4 - IT DOESN'T HELP INFILL OR URBAN REDEVELOPMENT. If land is taken off the market or its development rights are purchased or transferred, pressure to develop inward toward town will be as great as to develop outward. True, this infill housing must be encouraged by the city and towns with initiatives to accommodate the demonstrable demand among many young and old residents who want to live more urbanely and sustainably. This is a happy trend to be welcomed and capitalized on asap by Ann Arbor and other towns.

Fallacy#5 - IT REDUCES FREEDOM AND CHOICE. It tends to do just the opposite. Cheap land on the periphery and cheap gasoline have conspired to give us relatively monotonous, monocultural subdivisions - whether repetitive McMansions for the affluent, garden apartments for the middle class, or manufactured homes for the poor. (This may be conspiracy of good intentions but one with so many unintended negative consequences and so much asphalt as to qualify as the latest road to hell.) With the exception of some townhouses and lofts, we're down to three basic architectural types not only in Michigan but across the country, where regional differences have pretty much disappeared.

Fallacy #6 -TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE. The argument that the proposed amount of funding is too small is a curious one. Most citizens agree that the current trajectory of sprawl is not in the public interest and should be stopped. Any sound corrective step, such as this one, is positve, however small, however late. To contend that the money is insufficient and therefore shouldn't be spent is a little bit like saying we should stop spending on cancer research or housing for the homeless until full funding is at hand. The next step is to get going on densifying downtown with more residential units.

The last and biggest fallacy may be that sprawl is a natural and inevitable outcome of the American Dream, our political freedom and our economic system. In fact, it has been aided and abetted both intentionally and unintentionally since WWII by policies of cheap energy and farm land, highway programs, sewer and water subsidies, mortgage practices, greenfield siting of schools, malls and offices, underfunded transit, untaxed free parking, environmental laxities, etc. I'm not against people living at low suburban or exurban densities, just against the subsidising of it by the taxpayers who live in town, drive less, use less natural resources, etc.

Prop B is a good start, although not enough to reverse the seemingly inexorable sprawling of America, which can be stemmed only with considerably higher land and fuel pricing, as well as new zoning, regional and urban growth and redevelopment policies. It picks relatively low-hanging fruit that will only get harder to reach with time. There will no doubt be unintended consequences , as there always are, but probably not the ones now being trotted out by the opposition, who are in some cases doing their best to obfuscate and confuse the voters. Proposition B is an historic beginning of a new attitude and discipline about how we want to build community for ourselves and the future.

Douglas Kelbaugh FAIA, Professor and Dean
Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning
University of Michigan

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