College Towns

I love college towns.

I’ve often said that if I were a local economic development director and could recruit absolutely any economic activity, it would be a college. Why? 1) Colleges are a basic industry — outside dollars flowing in to purchase services (education) that is produced locally. 2) The economic activity is relatively stable, without the extreme volatility that many other industries sometimes face. 3) There is little chance that the industry will pick up and leave because labor costs are lower in east Asia or because taxes are 15 mills cheaper down the road.But even more than those reasons are the intellectual strength and world view of the faculty and the energy and creativity of the student body. Great college towns, I notice, share at least one characteristic — students want to stay there after they graduate.

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This week I was in Ann Arbor, Michigan, home to the University of Michigan, and just such a great college town. I was there at the invitation of Norm Tyler who lives in Ann Arbor but is professor of planning at Eastern Michigan at Ypsilanti 10 miles or so away. I had written earlier (May 17) about the great marketing job Norm and Melissa Milton-Pung of the Washtenaw County Preservation Commission had done in preparation for this visit. Well, it certainly paid off. There was a full house for the evening presentation on the Michigan campus and excellent press coverage.

In addition to the public presentation in the evening there were two other sessions – a meeting over an extended lunch with preservation activists, advocates, and supporters and a mid afternoon session with local officials – city council members, city and county staff, preservation commissioners and others. In all three sessions there were just superb questions that have no easy answers, but represented “ahead of the curve” issues in Michigan and elsewhere. But the depth and sophistication of the questions also reflected the wonderful intellectual venue that college towns represent.

The luncheon, by the way, was at the home of Norm and his wife Eileen, preservation architect with Quinn-Evans Architects. The house was built in 1830 and has to be one of the best privately owned Greek Revival houses in America. Norm and Eileen are only the fourth owners of the house, with one family having owned it for virtually the entire 20th century.

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So a day in Ann Arbor was great, but it’s not a town without the need to make some adjustments. They are in the process of adopting a new design ordinance — and it is definitely needed. Two examples will suffice.

First is the lunacy of the facadomy. Saving 4″ of brick or 8″ of a stone facade is in no way historic preservation. Not a dictionary written by Salvador Dali on drugs would define this idiocy as historic preservation. Of course my home of Washington, DC has many of the country’s most ludicrous examples of the facadomy, but the foolishness has migrated to Ann Arbor.

Now I said that I love college towns. But the colleges themselves frequently have the “we’re the big guys in town so we can do whatever we damn well please” attitude. And that was the case below. Preservationists argued that the Carnegie Library could have been adaptively reused and incorporated into the super block development that the University is undertaking. But the imagination-challenged university and its architects insisted they couldn’t do that (meaning, of course, that they lacked the creativity and design skills to figure out how to do it) so tore down the entire building except the front facade.

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So, I guess I need to make it clearer. THIS IS NOT HISTORIC PRESERVATION YOU DAMNED IDIOTS! In fact it is a mockery of historic preservation. If saving the building really isn’t possible, then for god’s sake, build a good new building that respects its context. And I probably should have mentioned, THIS IS NOT HISTORIC PRESERVATION YOU DAMNED IDIOTS!

I hope that was not too subtle to be understood. Where is that intellectual strength I mentioned in the beginning of this blog? On semester break, I guess.

One other example of the need for a good design ordinance — and this one the fault of the city, not the University. A new building, perfectly fine design (the currently popular quasi-industrial look for residential units) on a major street in downtown Ann Arbor. But the city required that the entrance to the garage be in the front of the building requiring a mid-block curb cut.

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The garage entrance should have been behind the building where there is currently a surface parking lot. The city wants to eventually develop that site as a parking garage. But even so, with the least imagination a way could have been figured out to access a rear garage entrance for this building even after a public garage was built. Lack of imagination that leads to a pedestrian barrier – a mid block curb cut. Sidewalks are for pedestrians, not automobiles. This is very simply bad design dictated by misguided decisions at city hall.

So, thanks, Ann Arbor for a day of great intellectual stimulation for me. But it’s too good a town to be diminished by facadomies and unimaginative, anti-pedestrian design decisions. Hopefully the new design ordinance will address these issues.