Plea for sympathy from the PhDs

Today at $job_academic I "get to" have my first experience at submitting materials to IRB for approval. Vicariously, I know this to be about as much fun a process as a barrel of monkeys. Dead monkeys. From last month.

Read: Richard Florida (2002) "The Rise of the Creative Class"

I just finished The Rise of the Creative Class, which I really didn't need to read, but thought I ought to, in order to know the spin.

The concept of the "Creative Class" is something that Jane Jacobs just sort of assumed in various works, and Florida is the only person I've seen give her The Economy of Cities and Cities and the Wealth of Nations any credit - with his general conclusions for what makes a city or region succeed being almost exactly what Jane concluded, 25 years ago (though with more examples). Both, of course, provide the observation that Detroit has a nice, deep hole to claw its way out of - while it was the city singularly best equipped to thrive until somewhat beyond World War II, it's now a total dinosaur, the least well-equipped major city to deal with the modern economy. (And Jane wrote Economy of Cities in the early 70s, and suggested then that Detroit was screwed.) Both speak of "cities" in the sense of "regions"; "Detroit" encompasses, therefore, everything out to Ann Arbor and Toledo and beyond, though Florida seems slightly more optimistic about the ability of a place like Ann Arbor to survive a regional bottoming-out.

Most of Florida's book, of course, is devoted to defining and discussing the Creative Class, and their effect on cities; I would have picked up "Cities and the Creative Class" (and "Flight of the Creative Class") had they not been checked out at the time. "Cities and", in particular, seems like it will be more immediately applicable, even if more directly a Jacobs rip-off; "the Creative Class" is at least a common concept these days, while not even most Jacobs-acolytes have read "Cities and the Wealth of Nations". "Rise of" was pretty much just an obligatory read.

I've started Jared Diamond's Collapse. Part One (oh yes, my family) is a fifty-page chapter entitled "Modern Montana".

"Certainly, sir. And allow me to next direct your attention to a piece known as, 'The Mona Lisa'"

Yesterday Cara and I escaped the heat into the nice air-conditioned art museum to see "Pop!" (Overly air-conditioned, really; we were glad to get back into the 90-degree humid outdoors after a while. Until we'd been there for a few minutes.)

One of the problems with Pop Art (or maybe "features") is that you've seen it all before - everything has been co-opted by consumerism . . . or, at least, consumerism would like to think that it has co-opted Pop Art, rather than allowing Pop Art in as a critical parasite. The exhibit has about 20 pieces by Warhol, and I knew all of them. Marilyn, yes, Brillo, sure, Jackie, right - it's all very much part of the American cultural language. Now, granted, there's a difference between seeing a Lichtenstein print on a poster in Andra's room, and seeing the original, done in felt or "enamel on steel", but at least the image is familiar.

So, of course, I had trouble containing myself when two college-aged guys walked up to Warhol's Campbell's soup cans and one said, "I think I've seen this somewhere before...", in a tone of complete, oblivious sincerety.

(And snobby snobby snobby snob, yes.)

An LJ quiz Rob would appreciate and Cara would not

Via [libcat]

If I were a Dead Russian Composer, I would be Dmitri Shostakovich!I am a shy, nervous, unassuming, fidgety, and stuttery little person who began composing the same year I started music lessons of any sort. I wrote the first of my fifteen symphonies at age 18, and my second opera, "Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District," when I was only 26. Unfortunately, Stalin hated the opera, and put me on the Enemy Of The People List for life. I nevertheless kept composing the works I wanted to write in private; some of my vocal cycles and 15 string quartets mock the Soviet System in notes. And I somehow was NOT killed in the process! And Harry Potter(c) stole my glasses and broke them!Who would you be? Dead Russian Composer Personality Test

Yum, data!

I have on my desk a list of every structure in downtown Ann Arbor, ordered by number of stories, and showing parcel area, floor area, and FAR for each. I also have it in a spreadsheet in e-mail. Allow me to quake with joy for a moment.

[AffA2] Density by unit count, not just by height

(Part of the Affordable Ann Arbor series of posts.)

"Density" is often mentioned as a factor in creating affordability through the housing supply, as well as being a factor in Jacobsian street health and support for local business and civic relationships. Most of Ann Arbor's discussion of downtown residential density, however, has focused on building height as the determining factor in density, and therefore on height limits (through FAR limits) as the key regulatory barrier. This is not the case.

Building higher achieves some economies of scale - primarily in terms of land cost. There are also significant diseconomies of scale associated with height, however. Moving from one to two stories requires two stairwells and an elevator, eating into usable floor area. Moving from four to five stories makes wood-frame building unfeasible, requiring more expensive steel and pre-stressed concrete construction. Going past ten stories requires extra expenses for construction, as well as for fire suppression. Building higher does generally reduce cost per square foot - but not to the extent that it can be a whole solution.

Height is not the only density restriction in the zoning code, however. All zoning districts also have a "maximum dwelling units per acre" or a "minimum lot size per dwelling unit" figure. Building higher will quickly push most developments past the unit count restrictions - when my project team designed our PFC/urban co-housing (pdf) mix, we overran the unit restriction well before the height restriction: our site had an allowed FAR (with maximum premiums) of 600% and a maximum unit count of around 8; our design had an FAR of around 550%-600% and a unit count of 40.

The new "loft-style" condos currently under construction or proposed in downtown Ann Arbor tend towards 900, 1200, 1500 square foot units. With development costs hovering around $350 / square foot - though this will also be challenged later - such units will naturally be priced out of reach of most of the population. Fortunately, such unit sizes are not necessary. Empirically, I state that a grad student couple can live quite comfortably in 600 square feet (except, perhaps, for hosting Thanksgiving dinner), pulling the unit price down to around $200,000 even without attacking per-foot costs, and that this is not nearly a minimum. Large unit sizes are not required to attract the "young professional", PhD student, new-hire junior faculty, or family looking to provide housing for their three kids who will be attending Michigan serially.

Small units are not without their own challenges, of course. Reducing unit size involves reducing depth of the unit into the building rather than width across the face of the building, unless skylights or other natural light and air sources are available, meaning that maintaining a floor plan of two units on the faces of the building backing onto a hallway in the center will lead to skinnier buildings as the unit size decreases. Assuming that a mixture of sizes are to be built, though, small units can be placed on one side of the hallway and large on the other, to widen the entire building, or out-of-unit storage could be placed in the core of the building. A simple willingness to assume the lower limit of unit size at around 500-600 square feet (rather than 900-1000 square feet) during design can help make workable floor plans that couldn't be pieced together only out of large units.

Increased density by increased unit count (of smaller units) is a key part of the affordability toolbox. Particularly in cases where development is rehab of an existing building (and total area is fixed) or where the context is very height-sensitive, plenty of room exists for lowering unit cost (at market rate) by reducing unit size.

Accidental media darling?

I believe that I have successfully conquered print media:

  1. On Monday, I had a Viewpoint appear in the Michigan Daily.

  2. On Tuesday, I was interviewed by Mary Morgan of the Ann Arbor News.
  3. On Thursday, I was photographed for an article in the Ann Arbor Observer (though I have also heard that the article may have been incredibly poorly written?)
  4. This evening, I attended the Old Fourth Ward / Downtown Neighbors Potluck Picnic, or whatever the event title was, and had people looking at my nametag and asking, "Oh, are you really Murph?!" Norm Cox even commented on something I had written here (rather than AU) just this morning.

So, yes. I think I've got print media down. Next step is to make sure Brandon gets that WCBN show he keeps talking about so that he can have me on as a Special Local Issues Guest, and I can take over radio as well. And then television. (Outside of CTN.)

[AffA2] Affordable Ann Arbor, In(dex|tent)

Since a large quantity of oft-heated conversation occurs around the topic of housing affordability, I feel like I ought to outline, in an organized fashion, some of the tools that I see as having a place in making Ann Arbor a community that a wide range of people can live in - not just those who are (literally) fortunate enough to be able to buy an Old West Side or Burns Park home, or who are lucky enough to have bought one 20 years ago. (Yes, fine, there are perfectly serviceable cheap generic apartments south of I-94, but that's not what I'm talking about.) None of these tools are intended to stand alone; all require a change in the attitudes and approaches of several parties - developers, city officials, &c. My intent is to target the ever-so-cliched "Creative Class", as the current vernacular for people who want to live in interesting places and are willing to make some sacrifices to do so. "Beginning BoBos" might be another good term for the target. Think grad students, people employed in non-profits, artists, and others who have chosen low-income paths - with the thought that, if you're creating housing that is accessible to the voluntarily low-income, you have a lot of overlap with the simply low-income, but have a much easier time, politically, making the changes happen. "Cool City" and "ghetto" have very different connotations to political decision-makers, but require/feature similar housing prices.

This post is intended to be an index, which I'll list some things on now in order to commit myself to actually continuing this:

This isn't meant to be an exclusive list; it will be added to as I think of things. Suggestions are welcome, as are contributions. (I expect "contributions" to take the form of posts on Past the College Grounds, Urban Oasis, SSTrudeau, &c., which I can then link to.) This could also be seen as a project begging for a wiki, but I like the episodic style, at least to get initial thoughts down.

(Edit: I'm tagging my relevant posts with [AffA2] in the title, since I have eschewed post categorization for now.)

A line in the sand?

Something to remember for the first Calthorpe public involvement session - visioning and conceptual planning:

What are the Friends of the Ann Arbor Greenway worried about? Why are they so dedicated to stopping the Three Site Plan that they are estranging the local businesses, other neighborhoods, and half the environmentalist community in the process? Perhaps (a nod to Scott S.) because they're worried that the next step after 1st/William (and the Liberty Lofts conversion across the street) will be to move into the neighborhood, anthropomorphized steam-shovels with toothy sneers on their snouts ripping through family homes.

By pushing activity generators away from their neighborhoods, they hope perhaps to make their homes less tasty-looking to the shovels. (Parks, contrary to the Friends' rhetoric, are not activity generators. Parks without adjoining vital uses are dead spaces, and often dangerous. Jane devotes a chapter in Death and Life to describing the types of parks that are dead and unpleasant, rather than the types that are vibrant parts of the neighborhood. What the Friends would have us build would not serve to draw activity to the space, but would help prevent activity - a large park that people don't have reason to go to ("It's green!" is not nearly enough), when added to the rail line and the other uses that surround it, would cut apart the uses on the sides of it - downtown and the OWS. Parking, like it or not, is much more of an activity generator than a park when placed on the edge of an area, and the more different uses, including parking, you can add to an area, the more activity you will see.

Perhaps what we need is to declare a hard western wall on downtown. The railway makes a good starting point. If the Central Area Plan and its accompanying codes were modified to make very, very clear that the Annie is the western edge of downtown-style development, something that's already generally in the plans but not particularly well publicized, then the DDA's proposed use for 1st/William can't be seen as downtown creep into the OWS, but simply as filling out the designated downtown area. Beyond that point, historic rehab - such as Liberty Lofts - would be allowed, and some mechanism for allowing places like Big City Small World and the Jefferson Market would have to be preserved, and uses like ADUs would be allowed, but the "character" would be strongly and explicitly preserved.

This sort of inside/outside distinction is much easier to draw on the western edge of town based on current uses than in other places, but "find tools to emphasize the downtown/not-downtown distinctions" seems like the kind of general, not focusing on using the process specifically to kill the Three Site Plan, goal that we ought be presenting Calthorpe.

Why to proofread your civic screeds...

The Friends of the Greenway just sent out another plea for bodies at tomorrow's public hearing, along with talking points. Tragically, I don't know if their readership is going to come equipped for the right hearing; some of them might think the discussion is about something else entirely:

City Council has offered only this single public hearing on the use of
pubic properties. Now is the time to let Council know what you want for
the Ann Arbor of the future.

Best missing "l" since I saw somebody assert that "Artificial insemination is pubicly accepted."