Open Letter to a Burns Park Neighbor

A neighbor wrote this response to Kim Winnick’s endorsement of Anne Bannister. It’s mostly been circulating on Facebook but I’ve reproduced it here so that people without an account can view it more easily.

If you want to read my writing on the upcoming election, I suggest my endorsements post, and for a little fun, I wrote about conspiracy theories plaguing local politics.

I’m a neighbor of yours, just around the corner on Minerva Road. Burns Park friends of ours saw your recent letter about why you’re voting for Anne Bannister for mayor in the coming August Primary, and were bothered by inaccuracies and falsehoods in the letter. They forwarded it to me, and I’d like to point out some issues that should give you pause to re-think. You’re an engineer, and I’m a technical translator and interpreter for leading German and Swiss power generation and energy engineering firms. We both deal with in-depth physical facts that demand thorough verification. The same rule should apply to the public policy-making you back. So please consider the following – and you’re welcome to a friendly beer on our front porch to discuss these matters.

Firstly, when still on City Council, Anne Bannister and her faction conspired to and then fired our highly popular, world-class City Manager Howard Lazarus for no reason other than he wanted to prepare a budget according to standing Council policy. Lazarus was implementing the legislation in force. Bannister wanted him to bend to the wishes of her faction, although we all learned in 8th Grade Civics Class that Council has to negotiate, approve and adopt legislation before it is implemented by city administration. They couldn’t force him to cut approved funding for climate action and pedestrian safety: so they fired him, at great financial cost to the city, and to this city’s national reputation. This was a major fiasco noted nationally.

Secondly, you perpetuate the lie that Mayor Christopher Taylor is pushing “rapid…virtually unrestricted growth in a crude, unsophisticated manner”, that he is somehow a pied piper bringing hordes of outsiders to Ann Arbor. Are you not aware of how low Ann Arbor’s growth rate is? In the last 20 years, the city’s population has grown by 8.5% – well below 1% per year. It’s not about population growth: it’s about where and how people live within the city limits. Not everyone can live in a single-family home in Burns Park, and many people nowadays no longer want a house in faraway suburbs. And – fully contrary to your statement – it is NOT higher density housing within the city that creates more traffic, but rather flat suburban sprawl. Traffic congestion on Washtenaw Avenue, Plymouth Road and I-94 is in part the direct result of not in my backyard.

I lived and worked 28 years in tight urban environments in Europe, and I can assure you that Mayor Taylor is pursuing a balanced, nuanced combination of densifying while also conserving the city’s beloved character. He and City Council have no say in University of Michigan student body numbers, and must adapt to and accommodate such change. University of Michigan strategic and financial policy-making pays faculty and staff salaries, ensures retirement benefits, and implements Michigan’s now highly lauded financial support for low-income students. The student body numbers directly reflect the university’s needs and goals. So if you have an issue with student body growth and its impacts on Ann Arbor, you need to take it up with your former employer.

Thirdly, you perpetuate the nonsensical, sophomoric, black-and-white type-labels of “defenders/protectors” versus “disrupters/strivers” that have no basis in fact. With every vote, every action, each and every one of us plays all four of these roles simultaneously. It’s basic physics: change happens, no matter what. Not in my backyard means change happens where you can’t steer it – and then it comes back with a vengeance to haunt you.

Regarding the numbered bullet points in your letter:

  1. Roads: Yup, the roads need improving – as they do all across the United States. You saw the extensive roadworks all last summer all across the city, with even more ongoing right now. Older maintenance schedules don’t work under the massively increased stress loads created by heavier trucks, 4-wheel-drive SUVs, higher numbers of vehicles and trips, and – you should know as an engineer – improved tire technology: today’s tire-grip rips up roads 4 times as fast as in the 1970s. So, how much more are you and Anne Bannister willing to pay in property taxes to fix the roads?
  2. The City Council members are not suing each other. Actually, it was Anne Bannister who sued the city over the Library Lot and pretextually over the manner of contracting practice that has occurred multiple times every year since the 1950s (on contracts including the purchase of Gallup Park), and many times later during her tenure on Council. She dropped the case, of course, but the case remains a huge blemish.
  3. The lawsuit over water and sewer rates is NOT likely to succeed. It was already dismissed once, and the lawyer has tried another tactic. City rates are meticulously calculated by water management professionals – not by the Mayor.
  4. I strongly suggest you put yourself into a wheelchair and experience taking the train from our current train station to Chicago. If you want to reduce the daily commuter road traffic coming to your employer University of Michigan, then public transportation by train is the answer. Your fleet of engineering instructors at the U of M can’t afford to live in Burns Park, many having to commute e.g. from Ypsilanti. The commuter stops in Ypsi-DepotTown and the new station at the Michigan Medicine complex would revolutionize commuting for U of M faculty, instructors and staff.
  5. Anne Bannister wants to curb development by protecting “mature trees.” We already have protection for “landmark trees” that have been identified by experts on city staff – the same experts who identify and remove diseased trees from our streets, protecting our houses. The unintended and un-thought-out consequences of what she proposes would mean that if you want to add a deck to your house, and that would destroy a “mature tree,” you would not get a permit to do it.
  6. The State Street reconstruction at the DIAG is about to be implemented. Long in the planning, it will create an amazing space. The issue of littering by students is an eternal, universal one.
  7. Ask the people now benefiting from affordable housing in Ann Arbor if it makes a difference to them. Yes, Kerrytown is a wonderful area to shop and stroll through, as are other low-rise old-brick districts in Ann Arbor. But these areas are not less “super-expensive” to live or operate a business in – rather, the opposite. Many of those cooks and waitresses serving you in these quaint little shops, cafes and restaurants have to commute from afar to find affordable housing. If you want a cross-section of the workforce there to serve you, then there has to be some density.
  8. The city is pursuing the Gelman plume issue as hard as it can, and more. Anne Bannister should have thought of this when she fired City Administrator Howard Lazarus who, as an expert-engineer with technical experience in this very field, was working overtime to seek resolution. Bannister and her allies nearly derailed the case in state court. Now that the case is in stasis after the judge issued his order for more cleanup and monitor wells, the City is moving forward asking EPA’s help. EPA is not a silver bullet here. Even if they take the case, a plan and cleanup will take decades. Also, they usually decline to intervene when there is a known polluter and a State authority engaged in the cleanup. EPA is a long-shot at best. Today’s plume is a long-term problem that arises as a result of Governor Engler’s gutting of Michigan pollution laws back pre-2000.
  9. The development at Lowertown was planned and zoned by a previous developer. It was not practical in 2006, when passed, and even more impractical in 2018 when re-zoned. It was never going to be built – a mirage. We’re in a housing crisis and Council re-zoned to permit housing and to effect much needed environmental cleanup near the river. That’s what happened in Lowertown. Some residents sued and lost.

Lastly, I and another neighbor on Minerva Road – Owen Jansson – worked for two years on Ann Arbor’s Pedestrian Safety and Access Task Force to research and define recommendations to improve walkability and bikeability in Ann Arbor, which I’m sure you appreciate as a cyclist. The protected cycle highways in downtown Ann Arbor are a direct result of our work. Anne Bannister convinced her colleagues, who were then defeated in the last election, to turn down state money to build a sidewalk to Northside School. As a result, the state will no longer work with the city and we are barred for a number of years from future Safe Routes To School grants. Our daughter walked and cycled to Burns Park Elementary, Tappan Middle School, and Pioneer High School. For me, anyone like Anne Bannister who blocks funding for sidewalks and crosswalks to schools has no place in our city government.

Again, I’d welcome any chance to discuss these issues with you, and you should not take this response to your letter as a personal attack. This is a neighborly response to get the facts right.

Best regards,

Tony Pinnell