Chris Dzombak

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What Ali Ramlawi Gets Wrong About Development and Quality of Life

What Ali Ramlawi Gets Wrong About Development and Quality of Life

Ali Ramlawi is running as an independent for City Council this year, in Ward 5, against Chip Smith.

I happened upon Ali’s Ann Arbor Votes profile today, and I found some of his stated positions very problematic.1

He says that opponents to the project are often inaccurately labeled as anti-development NIMBYs, but that he supports development when done responsibility and in appropriate locations, such as the Huron Street corridor.

Can Ali tell us what “responsible” development is, and how it differs from the decade-or-so process that’s led to the library lot development? Or is he throwing around terms like “responsible” without defining them, conveniently allowing him to arbitrarily label things he dislikes as “irresponsible?”

What, in Ali’s view, makes a location “appropriate” for this sort of development? Why is the Huron St. corridor more suitable than Fifth Ave. or Division St., which after Huron St. are the two busiest thoroughfares in the downtown core? Is Ali really suggesting that there is exactly one corridor in downtown Ann Arbor suitable for a tall building? Why Huron St.?

Based on the information I’ve found thus far about Ali’s positions, “irresponsible” development appears to be that which is literally in his backyard. Likewise, of the three busiest downtown corridors, the one best suited for development is the one that doesn’t happen to be his literal backyard.

Ramlawi doesn’t think the city involves enough residents and business owners in its decision-making processes, …

The city has held quite a number of public meetings and otherwise taken a lot of input over the past decade about the library lot and this development.

I believe that what Ramlawi actually means here is that the city didn’t move in a direction he likes, and that this somehow indicates that he wasn’t sufficiently involved. This is a recurring theme in controversial topics in local politics (the deer cull, major road or sewer construction, zoning, pedestrian safety): the losing side often claims the city just didn’t do enough public outreach.

Just because the city didn’t choose your preferred course of action, of course, doesn’t mean you didn’t get a say.

… and he’s concerned about the general direction that the city is taking on development.

Again, can I please have any specifics about what’s wrong with “the general direction” on development, and what he’d like to change? This statement as it stands has no literal meaning.

In writing this post, I reviewed several news articles about Ali, and I perused his campaign website. I can’t find any specifics about this, so I have to assume “concerned about the general direction that the city is taking on development” means “the city made some decisions I personally just don’t like.”2

(Which is fine, but he should just come out and say that.)

The city needs affordable housing and workforce housing, he says, but also needs to maintain Ann Arbor’s quality of life.

I am livid about this sentence. There are several problems to unpack here.

(Yes, I agree the city desperately needs affordable housing. To do that means you have to add housing. How else will housing become less expensive? This has to be our first priority.)

This statement implies that adding affordable housing is incompatible with maintaining quality of life in Ann Arbor. There is so much wrong with the implications of that belief.

It implies “quality of life … for the people who can afford to be here right now; for the people who had the foresight and money to buy property in Ann Arbor 10, or 15, or 30 years ago.”

What about the people who can’t afford to live here now, and instead commute in from Ypsi or elsewhere to work in shops and restaurants — like Ali’s Jerusalem Garden — downtown? The quality of life for Ann Arborites relies on those people. Do we care about their quality of life?

What about those who visit downtown occasionally and would love to live here but simply can’t? What about students who’re forced to pay unaffordable rents or live elsewhere and commute? Is quality of life just for those who can comfortably afford to live in Ann Arbor as it stands today, or do we care about making our town more accessible?

Ann Arbor is already quite homogeneous, both ethnically and socioeconomically. Continuing to restrict housing supply will lead to even more of a monoculture. But there exist people who believe that increasing diversity increases quality of life. (I’d personally much rather have a building downtown and an ever-so-slightly more diverse community than a surface parking lot.)

This MLive article, “Jerusalem Garden owner Ali Ramlawi running for City Council,” contains the rather remarkable sentence:

Ramlawi believes the 17-story development will be out of character and will accelerate the gentrification of Ann Arbor.

I’ve got some news here. You might want to sit down for this.

Ann Arbor is already gentrified. It’s incredibly homogeneous. It’s been this way for years. Because we didn’t add housing as people moved here. Those people — gentrifiers — could afford to pay more to live here, and so they pushed out people who were living here. Now those people live in Ypsi, or Detroit, or Kalamazoo, or still elsewhere: places with housing they could afford.

A recurring theme, here: we can add housing in an attempt to stop things from getting worse more quickly. Or we can keep our housing supply constant, ensure that only those just like us who can afford to live here, can live here.

Ann Arbor is growing because quality of life here is good. We can embrace that and make ours a welcoming community where people different from us can afford to live and feel comfortable.

Or we can freeze the city and continue increasing our already-stifling housing prices. Pull up the drawbridge. Preserve “quality of life” and an immutable downtown for those who are already here, and screw everyone else. Ensure the only people who can afford to live here are the same rich, aging, largely-white folks who’re uncomfortable with change and with people different from them — while relying on those same people to keep downtown running. And see where that gets us in a couple decades. (Hey, San Francisco!)

Ali — as far as I can tell — is advocating the latter choice. That’s not my idea of “quality of life.” And if you live in Ward 5, you should vote for Chip Smith on November 7.

Updated to add: I live in Ward 4, so I won’t be voting for either Chip or Ali.

Recommend reading on housing, planning, and diversity:

1 His profile also says he’s an avid cyclist. Me too! At least we can agree on that.

2 If Ali would care to define “responsible development” and more specifically outline his concerns about development in Ann Arbor, publicly, I would be happy to listen. But that definition, and those concerns, best be sound and consistent with modern urban planning — or they’ll be eviscerated in a future post here.