"Affordable housing" for Water Street, and Ypsilanti's dreams of gentrification

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I was asked for my thoughts on this proposal for Ypsilanti's Water Street property, which would put a 76 apartment development on a 3 acre chunk (pdf) at the rear of the site. The piece of ground in question is fill, and requires extra work to build on -- I'd be pretty surprised to NOT see it linger vacant as the last piece of land left vacant -- and the development would also construct several blocks worth of new city streets, water, and sewer to serve itself. Following is my (lightly edited) response to that ask:

In the general case, yes, Ypsilanti's housing "is affordable", and "we have a lot of 'affordable' housing already", but that's not something we can assume will always be the case: very little of Ypsilanti's housing stock can be safely assumed to be affordable in the long term.

I see the city's policy direction of the late 90s and early 2000s especially as having very explicit aspirations of gentrification: downzone west cross, build Pen Place to suck students out of that housing, and "reclaim" neighborhoods for higher-value residents (homeowners with families, in most conversations); use Water Street to kickstart a higher-end housing market in the city, etc. Many people even talk about a commuter rail station as primarily a way to increase home values.

If the schools get their act together, which I really hope they do, I think gentrification is not just possible, but likely. We'll never be Ann Arbor, but we could easily be "Saline, but with more students," in 20 years or so, and turn into a very exclusive community that doesn't have any place for a lot of our residents.

Yes, "market rate" and "affordable" are very similar things right now, but one of those can rapidly change. That kind of change is pretty impossible to stop once it gets underway, so I think it's important we take action now to lock in chunks of housing stock at various affordability levels so that we're not scrambling to catch up once we notice a trend in progress. (Ideally, this kind of "diversity insurance" would be done carefully and strategically. I understand Washtenaw County is currently in the process of updating their housing needs assessment -- the existing one uses year 2000 data -- and perhaps they can include some of these forward-looking strategic scenarios alongside a current snapshot.)

So, all that said, this proposal for WS seems pretty okay. The fact that it is "affordable" is at worst not a bad thing, even if it's not part of an ideal, strategic approach to long-term housing diversity.

Upsides:

  • Good vertical construction, with unit density similar to "Water Street Classic" plans, fairly consistent with new master plan. This design would *not* fit well in a place like, say, the Boys & Girls Club, or the property behind Corner Brewery on North River -- a little too tall & blocky -- but it's great for WS.

  • They have access to "the good financing", so purchase price isn't fantastic, but if they can build on the hardest-to-use piece of land, and also give us some roads & pipes in the deal, that's good. Paying taxes is good, not a huge amount, but reasonable.
  • The timeline is great - if we can get cash for sale this calendar year, and some taxable for next, plus infra under construction for others to build off of, that's very good.

Downsides:

  • The building & site plan seem fairly cookie-cutter. I'm especially not thrilled about taking up space on site for a private picnic area -- it seems like a frivolous investment when there's a park just on the other side of the building, and having a private picnic area that's surrounded by the street and parking lot seems like it wouldn't be very pleasant, and be kind of a dead area. I'd much rather see them invest in improvements along the greenway instead, even if it's still on private property.

  • Related, it'd be best if the corner of River and South were a little more appealing than a garage block. Obviously, they need parking somewhere, and they have to pick between parking along the streets or parking along the river, so there's no good solution. Just seems like they could put an addition on the building or add some townhomes along South or something.

Overall, I'd want to know more about building finish materials, see some parking lot landscaping & screening that's similar to the downtown lots, details like that, but this overall seems like a win.