Ann Arbor’s Missing Third Dimension

Perhaps you’ve noticed: new development in Ann Arbor is a mess. Here’s a typical scenario: a developer purchases or options a site and submits a design proposal. When it becomes public, neighbors, often other residents, and occasionally planning commissioners object to the design. The developer says it conforms to applicable city ordinances, or it qualifies as a PUD (Planned Unit Development), so these objections are irrelevant. Both sides petition Planning and City Council. There are hearings, protests, sometimes picket signs. The design is revised at great expense. The protesters aren’t satisfied. The arguments continue, with only lawyers profiting from the delays. Eventually there is a resolution, which usually means another unattractive and inappropriate structure has been plopped into downtown Ann Arbor or its neighborhoods.

Ann Arbor’s First and Second Dimensions

That summary describes the first dimension of development in Ann Arbor: zoning and its interpretation/misinterpretation. In the last year another dimension has been added to the process, design guidelines. Developed after almost a year of weekly meetings by a group of planners, architects and builders, and led by a member of City Council, this document identifies design standards to be added to the zoning standards. As approved by City Council, submission of new development to a Design Guidelines Review Board is mandatory, although compliance is voluntary.

These two published standards can go a long way in helping to identify what can be built where, within what parameters, and following what design guidelines. But the ongoing struggles of developers with neighbors, concerned citizens and planners indicates that these two dimensions are insufficient to resolve the question of what is appropriate for new development in Ann Arbor.

Ann Arbor’s Missing Third Dimension

A hint at what is missing comes from the many documents that are quoted by those challenging a particular design or development. These include the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority Development Plan and Tax Increment Financing Plan, the City of Ann Arbor Downtown Plan, the Recommended Vision and Policy Framework for Downtown Ann Arbor: Development Strategies Report (Calthorpe), the Ann Arbor SPARK Guiding Principles, the Washtenaw County Cultural Master Plan and the Downtown Ann Arbor Design Guidelines. The passages selected typically are the visioning statements, which to the neighbors and concerned citizens seem to identify important environmental, quality, sustainability and livability values that should also be applied to new projects. Here are typical passages:

From the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority Development Plan and Tax Increment Financing Plan (2003):
  • Encourage the preservation of open space, natural beauty, historic buildings, and critical environmental areas.
  • Diversity of use is the key to unlocking downtown’s potential as a focus of economic and social activity. A balanced mix of office, retail, housing, cultural, and entertainment uses will be promoted in order to draw people downtown in sufficient numbers to create a lively atmosphere and a profitable business setting. Emphasis will be placed on creating a critical mass of activity within a concentrated Core area.
  • Natural assets (including downtown’s topography and its proximity to the Huron River), streetscape improvements, and open spaces will also be used to advantage in creating a clear development structure and a quality visual environment. 
  • The downtown should be developed and maintained such that it continues to provide for future generations a viable economy, a “green” and energy-efficient built environment and transportation network, and social and cultural opportunities. 
From the Recommended Vision and Policy Framework for Downtown Ann Arbor: Development Strategies Report (Calthorpe, 2006):
  • change should aim to encourage and multiply the successful aspects of the community and aid in improving the area’s unique character and quality of life.
  • Downtown should be a place that represents the best of Ann Arbor’s social, economic, and ecological values.
  • Builds on the pedestrian scale of the Downtown urban fabric by placing the pedestrian first
  • Policy: Encourage the creation of new public spaces within the Downtown and rehabilitation of existing spaces:
o    Pursue and design a Town Square or central civic area that incorporates an outdoor meeting place, an art center, underground parking, an indoor facility, and mixed-use buildings 

From the City of Ann Arbor Downtown Plan (2009):
  • Downtown’s pedestrian orientation is one of its most important assets, underlying its success as a focus of retail, entertainment, and business activity, as well as its potential to attract new residential development.
  • Strong emphasis will be placed on downtown’s quality as a place for people on foot by maintaining its sense of pedestrian scale; promoting an active street life; and providing a comfortable and convenient walking environment.
  • Goal: Encourage the development of parks, plazas, through-block arcades and atrium spaces, emphasizing small open spaces distributed throughout downtown. 
From the Downtown Ann Arbor Design Guidelines (2011):
  • Locate an urban open space where there is a high level of existing or potential pedestrian activity.
Why the Third Planning Dimension is Needed

Because this kind of language is found in almost every important planning and visioning document, yet is routinely ignored or overridden by designers, the Planning Department, and even City Council, perhaps the absence of a consensus about this human-scale and community value dimension can be recognized as the source of all the design and development conflict. And if so, then what Ann Arbor is missing is this third dimension for planning and development. If such a document existed, parallel to the zoning and Design Guidelines documents, it would resolve the conflicts that make Ann Arbor such a hostile environment for developers and, in the minds of some, an increasingly unattractive city to walk through and live in.

Identifying the Third Dimension

What might such a third dimension document consist of, and how could it be created? In parallel to the zoning and design guidelines, a third dimension would identify those community values that make Ann Arbor unique, and add the human dimension to the rules and guidelines that specify how buildings are constructed. It would help make clear how new development can fit into existing contexts and communities, not just architecturally, but it terms of how it functions to enhance its neighborhood. It would include consideration for both large and proximate community values and the extent to which the new development enhanced them. It would prioritize those features mentioned in all the planning documents quoted above, the very features that seem always to be mentioned but never implemented. And it would be based upon a process that involved all facets of the community.

Defining the Third Dimension

Occasionally in Ann Arbor, and more regularly in the most successful towns and cities, there are structured attempts to gather ideas and input from the entire community. This activity takes place before plans are finalized and designs are created, and involves all groups, formal, organized, and ad hoc, along with individual citizens, based on the understanding that all in a community must live with new development for years and often decades, and therefore should understand and be involved in what is being proposed. This process may involve multiple and varied activities, and take significant time, but this up-front community involvement and careful planning results in appropriate development that will not be obstructed by protests, delays, and additional redesign and legal fees, and a community whose needs and interests have been heard and incorporated into any new development.

Although the Planning Department has the mandate for specifying zoning and other ordinances, and the Design Guidelines will help make new structures more integrated with their neighbors, only a third dimension of community value will result in successful development processes, satisfied citizens and neighbors, and a better and more livable city.

Why Incorporating the Third Dimension is Important Now

Understanding and integrating all these separate “livability” suggestions into a clear vision for downtown Ann Arbor’s economic development as a sustainable community is especially important now, with the focus on a number of public parcels potentially available for development.

Should all parcels be committed to the “bricks and mortar” approach, and be leased or sold to developers for commercial, business, or residential construction, one consequence would be to eliminate the possibility of creating the kind of sustainable and livable community that has already been recognized as an important component of what makes Ann Arbor attractive. Prioritizing tax revenue and structural density is usually at odds with the concepts previously identified as desirable: active street life, cultural use, open space, programmed public spaces, social activity, and creating an attractive setting for people. Yet many studies show that these other activities are themselves engines of growth and economic activity.

The urban features that attract businesses and the kind of entrepreneurs who generate new businesses involve those activities available after one leaves the workplace and ventures into the downtown environment. Restaurants and coffee shops, of course. Theatre and movies, certainly. Shopping, indeed. All of these are already present. But what makes a downtown vibrant, drawing both residents and non-residents to create a greater sense of community, are those public activities, both formal and informal, that encourage mingling, strolling, people-watching and all the other dimensions of active urban life.

Ann Arbor currently schedules a number of such activities, like the antique car show that bring throngs to Main Street, the summer art fairs, and Top of the Park events. The enthusiasm with which these events are greeted, and the economic benefits from the assembled crowds, validate the importance of these quality of life activities. Can such vibrant activities be increased, as an ongoing component of a sustainable urban lifestyle? Well, yes, as long as space remains within which such activities can develop.

Here is where the idea of sustainable economic development for downtown Ann Arbor comes up against the limited number of public spaces available for development.

The concern is that removing opportunities to preserve public space also removes the potential for expanding public, artistic, cultural, or just plain fun activities on a constant basis. What if instead of having to block off Main Street, downtown had a venue that could host a wide variety of civic activities, sponsored and organized by different groups, for purposes that would appeal to all the different interest groups within the city? There could be musical and theatrical activities, artisan fairs, outdoor chess competitions, book fairs, fashion shows, dance events, recreation, and even ice-skating in the winter. A venue that might support such diverse activities, with its potential for attracting participants as well as casual observers and providing a constant center of energy, could also support surrounding small businesses to service the participants. (A good example is Bryant Park in Manhattan –

It is easy to see how one or more such public event spaces would both attract and sustain desirable businesses within the downtown and also serve community needs. In this context, economic development requires more than steel and concrete to generate taxes: it needs open space and flexibility to provide those desirable diverse, active, and exciting cultural benefits that make businesses and their employees happy to be located in downtown Ann Arbor.

Therefore, when it is time for a parcel-by-parcel designation for what will be the best use of existing publicly-owned parcels in downtown Ann Arbor, let the proponents of development identify their best opportunities, but the city’s planners and decision makers should make sure that the essential public space that creates the soul of the city, and provides the energy that supports the developers, is not left out of the plans. And certainly they should consult the citizens in making these determinations, ideally with a process that allows identifying and applying the proposed third dimension. This will allow for genuine sustainability that is economic, cultural, recreational, and flexible to meet the current and future needs of all Ann Arbor residents, businesses, workers and visitors.

Peter Nagourney