TT with HD: Steve Kunselman
[Ed. note: Even though it seems at the beginning of this talk like HD is intent on wasting a perfect
opportunity to explore some substantive issues with Councilman Kunselman, the conversation eventually tilts in
that direction. It's substantive enough that some background reading might be in order on the origins of the
Old West Side Historic District. Have a look
at Dale Winling's Urban Oasis.]
SK: How does this work? I'm about 170, I think.
HD: I think we'll balance pretty good. Okay let's not start really tottering until we get the picture taken [Ed. note: picture taking ensues]
SK: I've been hitting the interview circuit.
HD: What's that?
SK: I said, I've been hitting the interview circuit. It was Monday or Tuesday that I did Conversations with Jim Blow on CTN. He does a talk show.
HD: Right, so how was that? I've heard that he goes barefoot, doesn't wear any shoes for that.
SK: He was wearing shoes, I don't know if he was wearing socks or not! [laugh] It was good, I enjoyed it. It was a good warm-up to this. I asked him how long he'd been doing this, he said like 16 years. He's a former City Council person.
HD: Is he really! I didn't realize that.
SK: Yeah, a Republican.
HD: Well, there's way less pressure here, because all the awkward pauses don't seem like awkward pauses.
SK: Ah. And you don't have to look at the camera.
HD: Right. I turned on the floodlight, the spotlight, to get enough light to help the picture turn out, and just before we hopped on the teeter totter you said that you ran the some kind of spotlight for an Elton John concert at Crisler Arena?
SK: Oh, yes. Back in the 80's when I was in college here at the University, I had a job that started at the Michigan Theater as a permit-worker as a part-time projectionist. And that also gave me the ability to do stage-hand work--load-ins, load-outs at various theatrical events. Primarily at the University. On occasion, being a permit-worker and the low man on the totem pole, when there wasn't someone over me in seniority who wanted to work that particular shift--or in this particular case climb up and be the Danger Mouse, which I did back then and I would never do now, I would be way too scared of heights now--but yeah, for example, I ran a truss spot at Crisler for the Elton John concert. The truss spots were basically at the same height as the scoreboard that hangs over the court ...
HD: ... okay, the big square block thing?
HD: Holy crap, that's high.
SK: Yeah, they brought the truss down on electric motors on chains and set up the spotlight so they were not blocking the view of the audience. You get your light beam down onto ...
HD: ... so you were actually shining a spotlight on Elton John himself?
SK: Well, I think I had it a couple of times on Elton, but if I recall, I was actually more on his guitar player or somebody else for most of that concert. At this point OSHA standards had caught up with the profession and they required us to have full harnesses and safety ropes hanging from the trusses so in the event that we fell off the truss, we wouldn't fall 30 feet below to our death. I also ran a truss spot years prior at Yost Ice Arena for the one time they brought the Ice Capades. It was Dorothy Hamill.
HD: Dorothy Hamill skated Yost?!
SK: Yes! And I did run my truss spot on her. Again, I was much younger and more daring. There were two trusses running the length of the ice, I think. They were about 40 feet in the air, because again, they had to be up above the audience. We had to climb up those metal cable rope ladders, you know they're only about a foot wide, and so we had to climb 40 feet up and climb out the truss and then sit in this old GM car seat, where they had a little buckle, that was it. No harnesses, no safety equipment, no nuthin. We climbed up there, sat down, buckled in and ran the show. We all rode the truss down, because nobody wanted to climb back down.
HD: Do you remember what music she skated to?
SK: Nooo, I don't. Just fancy ice-skating music, you know?
HD: Well it sounds like you'd be a really good contestant for something like Fear Factor.
SK: It's interesting that you should say that, because now that I'm in politics, I have no fear! It is about you know verbalizing opinions of those that I represent. And you know obviously there's compromise and tact, but I think at this point I think we need to start challenging ourselves and not be afraid to say some of some of the things that need to be said.
HD: Well you certainly don't seem to be afraid to say things like: The Greenway, that's not a good idea.
SK: Yeah, exactly! And I'm really proud of myself for being the only candidate, even among the incumbents, to actually come out and say you know what, I don't buy into this.
HD: It was quite striking during the CTN debates for the 3rd Ward, the ones that focussed specifically on the 3rd Ward, not just the ones that went across all wards, that you were the only one I heard who just unequivocally said, No, I'm against this! And even people who you could see weren't really gangbusters for it, were being diplomatic, trying to appeal to the sensibilities of those who might be for it. What I'm worried about though, is that you've centered your opposition on the fact that there's an active railway running through it. So I'm wondering, what happens to your argument if that railway disappears or ceases to become active?
SK: If the railway disappears or becomes a true rails-to-trail type endeavor, I would certainly be more open to it. I still don't think maybe it's the very best location, through the heart of our downtown. Now maybe at one end of the town to the other end of the town, and heading out into the country, that would make a more reasonable approach. There's too many street crossings to think that this is really going to work. I think that even some of the folks who were heavy Greenway advocates, [saw that] it's not great thing to think that at Main and Madison, we're going to stop all traffic so that people can ride their bikes across at that intersection. But that [an inactive railway] sets it up as a different scenario. There's rails-to-trails in many communities in abandoned railroads.
HD: But your basic point is that it's not an abandoned railroad.
SK: Right, it is not an abandoned railroad. It never really came out during the debates, but I'm very sensitive to the issues of children and trains. I lost a cousin to an Amtrak train over by Loch Alpine. They were playing on the trestle, and my cousin ...
HD: ... this is out Huron River Drive a ways, right?
SK: Yeah, out Huron River Drive right past Delhi, one of the trestles near the Loch Alpine entrance. He had cerebral palsy, was about twelve years old at the time, this was back in the mid-80's, '87 maybe. And there were two tracks, going between Chicago and Detroit--they have since taken the track out that's not used--but he froze up, the train was coming, they were on the trestle. Two other boys jumped out of the way. He got hit and killed. I was riding my motorcycle by, watching the train conductor running down the tracks ...
HD: ... this is after the accident?
SK: Right after the accident. I had no idea what had happened. I get to my parents' house over at Miller and Maple, my mom came running outside, Cousin Peter's been hit by a train! And we all went back out there. I was just, This is too eerie. So when I hear about the Greenway, how it's this great idea and the propaganda that started building up on it, I said: I'm not going to go there, because I believe there's great risk when you put people and trains in the same right-of-way. When somebody was speaking on the issues of the environment and said, We've got to get the Greenway done so that the children can ride their bicycles to school, I said: Alright, I'm done, this is it, you are wrong, you are playing games with the minds of the people in creating these images that are off-base. I get a lot of strength from defending people who would say, Why would you want to put kids and people in harm's way, thinking that a train is going to be able to stop if somebody's going to get off the Greenway and cross the tracks to the other side or something like that?? Now granted, that may be far fetched, but still, it's a train. And to think that we're going to change state law in order to allow for trespassing on the railroad right-of-way, is another thing!! And it all started with the First and William site. It was obvious that it was all to play up the politics of the 3-Site Plan. I'm not naive when it comes to some of that stuff.
HD: What's puzzling to me, actually, is that if you look at the Liberty Lofts construction now, which is near completion--and I think it's just spectacular ...
SK: ... yeah, I agree. I wish I could afford to live in something like that!
HD: If you look at the mass of the Liberty Lofts and ask yourself what makes a good transition from that into downtown, I think something on that lot [First and William] that's not flat, green would make a much better transition psychologically than having simply another ...
SK: ... another big, massive parking structure? ...
HD: ... well, no, I think that actually a big, massive parking structure would mass quite nicely there compared to Liberty Lofts.
SK: Well, my thoughts over the years--because you've got to remember that I've got a degree in urban planning and landscape architecture, so I like to think of design in many different ways and from a theoretical point of view, too. I've always thought that those houses along Ashley--I mean, they're all fine--but if some of them wound up being a part of a development project, that slope could then become balconies looking at each other from one side of the 'valley' to the other. And at the base of the valley you'd have your train, and maybe there'd be a small park of some degree ...
HD: ... wait up, let me make sure I understand where you're talking about. There's that hill that's to the back of the First and William lot, that could ...
SK: ... that could be developed, because parts of that hill, I believe, are part of the parcels of the houses along Ashley.
HD: Okay. So you're looking at those houses along Ashley and saying, Something more interesting could happen there than just those houses.
SK: Right. And someday it's going to happen. They've already moved a few of those houses out when they cleared out for the Kline's Lot. Remember, there used to be two houses across the street. Now, again, maybe that's 10, 20, 30, 40 years, who knows? But if you want to think big, think of good housing, and housing-across-from-housing in a valley. Parking structure? You know, I never thought that was a great place for a parking structure for downtown business. Because it is down the hill, it is kind of off to the back. What's interesting is when the DDA says, We don't want to fund a parking structure over at the Larcom site, but we'll do one down at the bottom of the hill! I'm like, Oh, okay, you're really thinking about downtown business aren't you?!
HD: As long as you brought up the Larcom site, that's in connection with the need for the City to provide a courts facility, and where to put that, and whether to house a police facility with that and perhaps also City Hall functions. And you just mentioned that as a politician, it's about representing others' opinions. So I'm wondering, Jean Carlberg, who you're replacing on Council, ...
SK: ... right ...
HD: ... which is not the right word to use, ...
SK: I like to think of it as a relay race and she's handed the baton off to me and we're continuing down the same stretch ...
HD: ... fair enough, ...
SK: ... because we've pretty much been in the same direction, we're maybe not always in the same lane, you know. But I have enduring respect for Jean.
HD: That's why you really hate to say 'replace' somebody, because, any person, maybe especially Jean, is irreplaceable. But where I was going with this, is that one of the issues that I think she's raised concerns about is the idea of divorcing City Hall function physically from police, as a part of any proposal.
HD: And Mayor Hieftje said when he was here, that while that consideration is not a leading principle, it's a factor, you know, Don't think for a second that we're not thinking about that issue. Maybe I missed it, but I don't think there was actually a costing analysis at the most recent working session that would have Phase I: courts only, and Phase II: city hall plus police. I guess I would be more convinced that this was being taken seriously as a factor, if that was at least costed out.
HD: So do you know, is that scenario being costed out?
SK: It's funny that you should raise those concerns, because I have a lot of those concerns, too. And first of all, representing the people of Ward 3, I haven't heard any positive comment about the Library Lot being used for any public facilities like police, courts, and City Hall.
HD: So regardless of what's put there, there's not a lot of support for using the Library Lot for it?
SK: Not a great place, in my opinion, and not a great place from the point of view of people I've talked to in Ward 3. I would rather see some greater consensus, and if the Library Board says that's not a great idea either, you know I have to respect that. They are elected officials and they have their constituency that they have to be considerate of. On the second issue of police and city hall, I'm just as adamant as Jean that the idea of separating them is not in the best interests of our community. I really do believe that citizen oversight over the police department is vital ...
HD: ... but what would you say to the idea that, Hey, Steve, you know we don't want to separate them forever, it's part of a phased solution that would happen over ...
SK: ... that's politicians talking. I've been there. I've worked for seven different politicians at one time or another over the course of ten years and they all have grander dreams of building something. Even at the township level when I worked at Sumpter Township, Oh, we've got to have a new township hall, a new police department. Because their police department was in pretty sad shape, no doubt. They actually had plans drawn up and architects draft buildings, but you know, when it comes down to the money at some point, it starts to be, How do you sell it to the people?
HD: So is there in your mind an obviously better candidate site?
SK: I'm really glad at this point that they haven't made a decision, but I'm kind of saddened by the fact that it's only two choices, and I do think that there are other choices out there ...
HD: ... the two choices being the Library Lot and the Larcom Lot?
SK: Right, and it seems like they looked at 18 sites, the task force did. But the task force was kind of given some very limited information, very limited responsibility to truly look into it, and they had no public opinion solicited on it, I think. Ever since this issue came up, even before I got on Council--in fact I swore in on Monday ...
HD: ... how was that by the way? What kind of ceremony is that?
SK: Well, I'm having a ceremonial swearing-in this next Monday at Council, but my official swearing in took place in the Clerk's office, holding my right hand up ...
HD: ... just you and the clerk?
SK: Just the clerk.
HD: No trumpets blaring in the background?
SK: No, no, I swore to uphold the Constitution of the United States ...
HD: ... are you kidding, the Constitution of the United States??
SK: I have sworn to uphold the Constitution of the United States, yes.
HD: Wow, I wouldn't have guessed that would be a part of it. No mention of the City Charter??
SK: Oh I'm sure that was in there, too. It was four or five sentences that I had to repeat, I didn't memorize it. The Constitution was, I think, the biggest issue that I have to ...
HD: ... so are you going to recite the same thing at City Council?
SK: I believe so.
HD: Are you going to memorized it?
SK: I haven't memorized it.
HD: It would be really impressive if you memorized it, because I would guess that Suarez is not going to memorize it and you could one-up him! Anyway, back to ...
SK: ... yeah, anyway, I've already started, because I knew this was a big issue. After the Council meeting where they were debating the resolution that was going to be brought forth to declare either the Library or the Larcom Lot--which fortunately has been postponed for a couple of months--I ran into the County Administrator the next day, just by chance ...
HD: ... that's Bob Guenzel?
SK: Bob Guenzel. I was over at Sabor Latino, I was having lunch. And I introduced myself, I said, Hi, Mr. Guenzel, I'm the Councilmember-elect from Ward 3 and what's this about ...
HD: ... just out of curiosity, did he say, Oh, yeah, I know who you are, Steve.
SK: Yeah, he did! And he even said, And I live in Ward 3! So I was like, Oh! A constituent! So I said, Hey, has anybody come and talked to you about the lot at Main and Ann Street?
HD: Main and Ann?
SK: It's a vacant surface parking lot, right next to a big parking structure ... across from the County Building. It's next to the Main Street Party Store.
HD: Oh, okay, gotcha.
SK: Vacant parking lot where the old Washtenaw County Jail used to sit. And I said, Has anybody talked to you about that? And he basically said, No, nobody's talked to us about it. I said, Man, wouldn't that be a great site for court building? Court only. Wouldn't it be great if the City and the County would work together cooperatively, or collaboratively on this? And he said, Well, you know there's some other issues going on there, too.
HD: But it sounds like he didn't say, You know, Steve, that's just nuts!
SK: No, not at all. He said, Nobody's talked to us about it. In fact, chances are it would be a good place for a development of some sort, as is the other County lot behind the old post office. I then called up Jeff Irwin, County Commissioner, who's also a Ward 3 constituent. I wanted to know his opinion. I said, What do you think about trying to work more collaboratively on this? What do you think, as a city resident, this is also your tax dollars that we're talking about, my tax dollars as well. I said, What's this about this urgency, the issue of being out by 2009? After talking to him I didn't get a great sense of urgency. You know we have to made headway. The County has approved to sell bonds for upgrading their court facilities, so obviously there's momentum going on there. Then I ran into Commissioner Conan Smith at the NAACP fundraiser ...
HD: ... he lives right over there, you can almost see his house from here ...
SK: ... okay! Asked him the same questions. What do you think about this? Why should we be building two court facilities, with two secure systems, paying for two utility bills for that effort, two secured parking underground, when it's all courts, right? It's a very compatible use. My understanding, having talked to some of the folks on the City side, is that the judges are not getting along inside the County Building. And that certainly makes sense. I mean, they're in a tight space. But that's not to say that we couldn't help them out by giving them each their own floor or put the City on a couple of floors and put the County on a couple of floors and they don't have to see each other. But boy, it would make a good effort among the attorneys, because it's all in one place, I even introduced myself to Ellie Serras of the Main Street Association. I said, What would you think about something like that? You know, it doesn't sound like the City has been out trying to solicit any opinion as to really what's going to be best for the community. And I would think that it'd be very important to anchor Main Street retail with these court jobs. There's 45 staff jobs plus a couple of judges, down on Main Street. We need office workers down there.
HD: Do you know if the site we're talking about right now was among the 18 sites listed as considered in the task force report?
SK: It's listed on a piece of paper in that task force report and that's all that's there: Main and Ann. There's no indication of any discussion about it. It didn't meet all these other criteria. They were given a whole set of criteria, and that's what they had to do.
HD: So you think that constrained the thinking too much?
HD: I must say, though, not that I read the document in great detail ...
SK: ... it's not a very lengthy document ...
HD: ... okay, well, still, I don't bring a great deal of expertise to a document like that, to assess whether a good job was done by the task force or not. I sort of go by, the names on the task forces seemed to be all people who have good sense, and there was a section I remember called 'Inside the Box Thinking' and then another one that was called 'Outside the Box Thinking' and I thought, Hey, they tried to think outside the box, it's labeled right here in their report, for heaven's sake.
SK: But they didn't talk to anybody outside the box. That's my point. They did not talk to anybody outside the box and that's why I said, Wait a minute! They said in this task force that they identified the site, but they did not even talk to the County Administrator or even some County Commissioners at that point, so that does not make me think that they actually thought outside the box. I mean, they put it on a piece of paper, but they didn't think about it. When I talked to one of the DDA members about, How come you guys didn't think about this? They said, Well, we were given a set of criteria and the Library Lot ended up being it. Again, that's great, but you didn't solicit any public opinion and the public is not buying it. Like I said, I've talked to people, because I have to know what my constituents think of it, and the Library Lot is not a great place to be in.
HD: Now speaking of boxes, though, I don't want this conversation to come to end without talking about box hockey.
SK: Oh, yes!
HD: What the heck is box hockey?
SK: Box hockey is a game that I grew up playing at our neighborhood park during the summertime when we used to provide neighborhood-based summer recreation programs in this community. It is a game where it's a box made out of a plywood floor and frame of wood. It has 8-foot-by-4-foot piece of plywood base, the box is segmented into three internal boxes, so you have basically boards running and you have cutouts ...
HD: ... so kind alike a foozball kinda deal, except way bigger?
SK: Uh, not quite. You have your three compartments, and you have slots on the three boards that divide up the compartments, and these slots are cut out to probably about three inches wide and two inches tall, big enough for a hockey puck to kinda go through. The middle board has three slots, and the third boards have two slots, and the very end boards have one slot, the goals.
HD: Okay, got it.
SK: And take a cut-off hockey stick, so your stick is now just a nub ...
HD: ... so there's not any curvature to the end at all?
SK: Not at all. So you put the puck on the middle board, the two opponents knock their sticks down, you go One, Two, Three, and then you go and you start hitting the puck like crazy. The idea is to get the puck through the slots and to knock it out through your opponent's goal at the other end.
HD: Seems straightforward.
SK: It's very aggressive. It's very fast.
HD: So are you allowed to ...
SK: ... to poke your opponent?
HD: No, that would not have occurred to me, interesting that it would occur to you!
SK: Oh, probably not!
HD: Do you have stay on one side of the box?
SK: Yes, you have to stay on your side of the box. Now you can move up and down your side, because obviously you have to go from one compartment to the other as the puck is knocked around.
HD: But you're not allowed to step across and straddle the box? Well, I guess four-by-eight feet, that would be a fairly substantial span.
SK: Right, and you hold your stick like you do a regular hockey stick.
HD: Does it help to train actual hockey reflexes at all? Or is this something that would be counter productive for someone who wanted to learn ...
SK: ... I can't say that it has a direct relation to playing hockey. I am also an ice-skater and again grew up ice skating outdoors on our outdoor ice rinks when the City used to provide them. That's how I learned how to ice skate.
HD: There's a certain wistful quality to the way you talk about these programs in parks and stuff like that. Why is that?
SK: Because I had the greatest childhood growing up in Ann Arbor because of those experiences and because of those opportunities that our parks and recreation program provide. I was in Seattle in June. And the waiter in the restaurant where I was, I ended up chatting with him. I told him I was from Ann Arbor, and he said, Oh, I'm from Ann Arbor, too! I think he went to Tappan or something like that and graduated in the mid-90's or something. And I said, Hey, do you remember playing box hockey? And he says, YEAH, I remember playing box hockey! And that's the kind of thing, those are the kinds of experiences, that I think kids remember in a community. I'm really saddened by the fact that we cut that. Parents program their kids so much now that they don't really care for that service? That's the kind of thing that I don't quite believe is necessarily true. If you cut the programs then yes, you're going to have less kids using it, so it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
HD: You said in an email to me that you've built a box hockey box for your kids?
SK: I have a box hockey box. I built it last--I think it was last year or two years ago--because I wanted my kids to have an experience that I had growing up in town.
HD: So did you use a skill set there that you developed working in stage craft at all?
SK: Carpentry skills? Actually, the carpentry skills I developed when I was even younger. I am a former skateboarder. In my neighborhood, we built a half-pipe, so we learned how to use power tools and hammers! So in fact, the day of the primary election, because of my nervousness and all this stuff going up to this point, I just decided to stay home and I built a little quarter-pipe, because my step-son is a little bit interested in skateboarding--he's ten going on eleven. I decided, you know what, I've got all this scrap wood out in the back yard, I'd better do something with it. I'd always been thinking of building another half-pipe skate pipe, so I just built another little two-foot-tall-by-three-foot wide little quarter-pipe. So he can kind of go up and come back down, go up and back down, that kind of thing.
HD: So you have that situated in your backyard as a permanent fixture or?
SK: No, it's something that has to be picked up and put out in the street where there's asphalt. I don't have any smooth hard surfaces in my driveway.
HD: Got it. I guess if I'd thought about it for longer than two seconds, I would have realized that's not really something you can use in a backyard.
SK: Well, a half-pipe you can put in your backyard. Like I say, someday I would hope to have something like that.
HD: So do you live in a historic district?
SK: No, I live in an older neighborhood.
HD: The reason I asked--in connection with what you can put in your backyard--is that last night I actually went to the public meeting on the proposed changes to the historic district ordinance language.
SK: Okay, okay. That's not part of the A2D2, the design guidelines, is it?
HD: I think that was a separate event. This was an event attended by me and three school kids and one other person--actually two, one came late. It was important, I think that it was done, because it was on CTN, so it was a matter of sort of reading it into the public record and making the content accessible for people who want to watch it later. So for me the take-away was that all the historic districts now, Old West Side included, will have a uniform standard with respect to how the properties are evaluated. Currently, our historic district is what's called a streetscape-defined district ...
SK: ... right, you can't change outside ...
HD: ... and what's important is what you can see from the street, so it's the front 15 feet. Now, [under the proposed revision] that's going to be different. Even the landscaping in the backyard, that's going to be subject to review.
HD: That's what the handout said. And, of course, because my backyard is very important to me, I've got this teeter totter built here and it occurred to me that you know ...
SK: [laugh] that you might have to embellish it with historic ... [laugh]
HD: ... no, no, it's here now, so I don't think there's any problem. I'm just thinking that if I were to want to add a second one so that I could have parallel teeter tottering, this might be something that, technically speaking, would need to go through the approval process. So I asked--and I waited until the meeting was over, because I didn't want that kind of silly question to be a permanent part of the CTN video record ...
SK: ... well, it's not silly ...
HD: ... well, yeah, I guess what people do care about most is themselves and this is about me, so I asked about playground equipment in general and then for example, just say hypothetically, a teeter totter. Kristine Kidorf said, Yeeaah, technically, yes, it'd need to be reviewed, but seriously, unless it were to be some kind of gigantic, grotesque teeter totter that was totally out of scale, or out of the character of the surrounding buildings somehow, that I wouldn't need to worry about it. It would probably be a staff-level thing, that it would sail through, and that I almost certainly wouldn't need to put together a presentation and actually go before the Historic District Commission or anything. So on the one hand I found that re-assuring, on the other hand, it's just annoying to think that I should have to think about submitting anything to anybody, a request, or a review for something like this.
SK: I would agree with you.
HD: At the time we're reviewing the language--which apparently needs to be reviewed and brought into some kind of compliance with what the State of Michigan says--I'm wondering if maybe now is the time to press the issue of whether we really want to have an Old West Side Historic District any more? So I hesitate to even broach the subject, because there is--I don't know if it's a consensus--but there are a lot of voices along this street specifically, that would say, Dave, you're nuts, you're going to ruin everything! I guess it might ruin everything. But maybe it would take 200 years to notice, would be my point.
SK: My very first comment regarding historic districts is I don't think that it's the government's role to impose something of that nature, unless the majority of the people in the neighborhood want it. I've got to be very clear about that because that's one of the things that came up ...
HD: ... in the Lower Town ...
SK: ... well, actually, the Burns Park neighborhood in Ward 3. They're very concerned about being 'imposed on' with a historic district. And I've been telling them, unless the majority of the people in the neighborhood, that's something they want, then I'm not going to vote for something that the majority doesn't want. Because it doesn't really tie into public safety, health, and welfare. Now, I can understand taking leadership on something that may go against the tide of the majority on say, for example, sidewalks on Easy Street. That's been a difficult situation, where I understand that the majority of the people may not want them, but it's primarily due to cost, not necessarily due to ...
HD: ... because they hate sidewalks ...
SK: ... right. You know, there's a public safety element to that. Now historic districts, the Old West Side, I think everyone's very very concerned and I think rightfully so, that we could start losing homes to somebody who says, Oh, I'm going to tear down this house and put up a nice big, McMansion. Close to downtown with all the square-footage I want! I was still a very young kid, but all those apartment buildings that got built over here on the Old West Side, that's what spurred the interest in the historic district. So to take away that protection, it's not to say these houses wouldn't be torn down. So the question is at this point, I think the property values are probably high enough, that it's not ...
HD: ... oh, it's obscene ...
SK: ... it's not so convenient to tear down a $300,000 house and put up a $400,000 house kind-of-thing.
HD: It's really lamentable. We simply could not afford to even think about buying this house now, and it's not been that long that we've lived here, something like 9 years. But you know, you mentioned these apartment buildings that were being built around the time that the Old West Side Historic District was created. I don't know if you know the name Dale Winling?
SK: He's one of the bloggers? Who's a master's of urban planning student? Yeah.
HD: Yeah, I think he's in the final throes of his thesis. He posted something recently [Urban Oasis http://www.urbanoasis.org/blog/], where he's uncovered some sentiment expressed around that time on the part of the people who were trying to create the district that those kinds of apartment buildings, which tend to increase density, were not unwelcome and that their intent was not to keep that from happening per se.
HD: People at that time, there was a recognition on the part of the people who were behind the creation of the historic district that greater density was needed and welcome and that was desirable, and that these apartment dwellings weren't inherently--in virtue of the fact that they were apartment dwellings--unwelcome. So I thought that was fascinating, especially in the context of the whole density question. The word that I see most frequently associated with density is 'modest' We only want modest growth, don't worry. We only want modest increases in density, don't worry. Ann Arbor has the density of a suburb, there's nothing we can do about it and there's nothing we would want to do about it. But at the same time, people talk about these mass-transit systems that seem to depend inherently on vastly greater density than this modest growth scenario that people talk about, and to me that's fundamentally incoherent. You can't have a coherent position in favor of mass-transit--with a north-south system, an east-west system, and a circulator system--and still be sort of soft on the density question. Maybe that's just the political reality that if you start talking about I'm super-pro-density and I want to add 5000 units downtown a year for the next 20 years, people will say, Okay, you're nuts and we'll vote you right out of office as soon as possible, so you wouldn't be able to stick around long enough to make rail happen. So what are your thoughts on density?
SK: Oh, jeez.
HD: Are you willing, say, to be just as clear as you are about the Greenway, and say, Yes, we need a thousand extra units a year and now let's see what we can do to make that happen?
SK: Well, I don't think I could come up with specific numbers. I think if you look back at my campaign, I was one of the stronger proponents of greater housing opportunities downtown. It was framed in a way to alleviate the pressures in the nearby neighborhoods of turning into rental housing, turning into high-priced areas that families can't afford. And partly because having grown up here, I haven't seen anything happen downtown. Sloan Plaza, as somebody reminded me, was built in '84 maybe, and that's the only significant housing of any density built in downtown Ann Arbor over all these years. It does seem like there was some kind of a blanket effort--maybe politically and all the way down through staff--to try to squash housing downtown for some reason, to keep this image of a quaint small town. Ann Arbor's always going to be quaint and small, there's just no doubt about it, for many many years. But I'm getting tired of looking at all the vacant parking lots, having grown up here. Where Metro 202 is going, that's been a vacant parking lot since I lived downtown when I was three years old! My mom and I lived near Liberty Plaza when she was a single mother. In fact this whole Library Lot thing, the building they were talking about tearing down for the police-courts-city-hall in the back there, is the remaining duplex of about four buildings that were back there that my mom and I lived in.
HD: No way!
SK: Yes. Back when it was affordable! Back when single mothers--in fact there was a single mother and her son who lived below us, too--lived downtown. I used to go to Ice Cream Carmel Castle, I could walk across Division ...
HD: Ice Cream Carmel Castle??
SK: Where Le Dog is now. That used to be Ice Cream Carmel Castle and you'd get your soft-serve ice cream and carmel corn and ... Anyway, like I said, Metro 202 lot, that was a vacant parking lot then. The Whiffletree lot where the Ashley Terraces is being built, that was vacant ever since the Whiffletree burned down. To say that that too much development is going to cause too much to change in our downtown? I'm sorry, but the vacant parking lots are not a great thing. I think we've got a long way to go before we start saying, Uh, we built too much, there's no more vacant land to build on. So when we talk about density, I think we're talking about a comfort level as well. And I can't say, Oh, we need 1000 units. I just want to see good design. I want to see housing, because I think it's very important that we bring people downtown to live. I've always been: Housing for people not for cars! I've been told, You're being irresponsible! Well, you know what, it's irresponsible to think that we have to build for cars. Because 50 years from now, cars may be very irrelevant. And we've only had cars for 100 years. Who's to say that we shouldn't say we shouldn't also be planning for the mass transit that is going to have to happen someday. I just heard on the radio that Amtrak just had it's greatest year ever in Michigan.
SK: Yeah, gas prices shot up, Amtrak got some business, and I'm like, Alright!
HD: Well, that's encouraging.
SK: The unfortunate thing is that I'm no longer a Planning Commissioner, I've lost my seat, now that I'm on Council.
HD: Doesn't Council have a representative on the Planning Commission?
SK: Well, they have to make that appointment, and because I'm a junior member of Council--whatever that might mean--I think somebody else might want that seat.
HD: As a junior member, you're not qualified to serve on the Planning Commission, what have you been doing on Planning Commission, Steve?? [laugh]
HD: Well, actually, to be honest, nothing against you being on Planning Commission from Council, but there's a certain amount of sense that makes to having someone else on Council to get the perspective from Planning Commission.
SK: Yeah, yeah, and that's not to say that I'm not going to talk about those issues when they come to Council. That's one of the things that that are going to differentiate me as I step up a little bit, is that I do like to bring these issues up, because I like to talk about these issues. Whether or not I'm on the Planning Commission, because if you've seen me on Planning Commission ...
HD: ... actually, I saw you on Planning Commission, the very night of the CTN debates. You did the debate and then I guess you ran over to get to the Planning ...
SK: ... I did, I got over there pretty quick, because there was a hot topic I wanted to get in on! I forget what that hot topic was, ... oh, it was the Platt Road Center. That was my neighborhood. They were talking about putting in a driveway access for a commercial retail business on a residential street half-way down the block, and everybody's saying, It'll be good for your neighborhood, because they can drive to the store! I'm like, Have you talked to the neighbors? Oh, thank you, I'm here from the City and I'm here to help you, is all I'm hearing from all of you. And no, that's not the way to go.
HD: Do you know who on Council might be interested in being on Planning Commission [as Council's representative]?
SK: I've heard rumors, but I don't want to say at this point because obviously, it'd be ...
HD: ... passing along rumors could just screw things up.
SK: Right. I intend to be on Council as long as people keep electing me, so if I'm there in 10 years maybe my chance will come back up!
HD: Well, my advice would be when things come up reported to Council by the new person, it probably wouldn't be smart to say, Well, back when I was on Planning Commission ... That probably wouldn't be well-received.
SK: Right! It's not so much as about when I was on Planning Commission as about the fact that I'm concerned about these issues, and did you look at these designs, and did you talk about these concerns? Those are the things we have to talk about. On Planning Commission, we do the majority of our work to bring these issues up, and there's been a few times when we come to a consensus and we vote to approve as a Planning Commission and it goes up to Council, and they do something different and we go, Why, do they even care what we think then?
HD: You're thinking of Metro 202 in particular?
SK: [laugh] That was one.
HD: Yeah, that was an odd one. In fact at the CTN debate, there was a question that was put to you, I think, that had to do with, Do you feel like it's your job to say how you're going to vote.
HD: Do you remember that question?
SK: Yeah, I do remember that. I'm not sure what that was leading to. How I was going vote to vote at the meeting? Or how I intended on voting ...
HD: ... it seemed to me that what it was trying to get at is that when Mayor Hieftje voted No on Metro 202, it came as a surprise to everyone concerned ...
SK: ... oh, right, right ...
HD: ... and he was quoted in the paper as saying, It's not my job to say how I'm going to vote. But really, it's sensible to think it is everyone's job to communicate their concerns in a clear enough way all along the way so that people are not stunned by a No vote.
SK: Right, right. There's been times when I've been on the Planning Commission and dealing with a petitioner and it sounds to them like I'm really against the project, I'm asking really hard questions and they're saying, Oh, man he doesn't like our project. But then I'll turn around and vote for it.
HD: Well, by asking the hard questions you have to demonstrate that you're not just rolling over and saying, You know that's a pretty design, let's make that happen.
SK: A good example that I like to bring up is the Gallery project. There was a design element of that project that I was very, very concerned about, that was the clincher that if it went that way, I was not going to be voting for it ...
HD: ... what was that design element?
SK: That was the driveway access, the 'private road' access, I guess, if you thought about it. Because if you've got a 10-story building, what you're talking about is basically a 100-home subdivision, right? So a private road with a 200-car parking garage underneath. And the proposed entrance to their parking garage was on 4th Street across from the Farmer's Market. To me that was just totally opposite of what my impression of what pedestrian-friendly is about. And how dare the developer think about dumping a driveway across the Farmer's Market with all these cars trying to come in and out to do their Saturday-morning errands, while everybody else is trying to walk to the Farmer's Market. You have these car-pedestrian conflicts and they think that's not going to be a concern?! I was one of the few people that were against it among the Planning Commissioners, and the general consensus among everybody else was that it'd be easier for them [Gallery residents] to get out [onto 4th] rather than Main Street, because Main Street is so congested. You know, we should make it easier for these people to get in and out of their place. And I'm like, Why should I care about that?? They're going to be living downtown, I don't care how they're going to be getting in and out with their car. They shouldn't be driving a car anyway, because the whole point of bringing people downtown is to live there. But the petitioner was saying, Well, I don't know if the State is going to let us have a driveway access onto Main Street, ...
HD: ... because Main Street is a state trunk ...
SK: ... a state trunk line, right. But I knew better than that, because having dealt with lots and parcels and property rights as a staff person, the fact is that the parcel on 4th Street was a separate parcel. I said, You know what, though, the State cannot make you use another parcel for an entrance. They have to grant you entrance onto the parcel you're proposing to build on. They can't make you, I know that. That's a taking: go use that other piece of land. The petitioner, he could put it in another corporation, he could put it in an LLC, he could change it so that he doesn't technically own it.
HD: So the fact that it was not one big parcel, but two separate parcels, you could make the case that you can do an entrance onto Main Street.
SK: Right, so I harped on that, and I made it very clear that I'm not going to vote for a project that has an entrance onto 4th Street, I'm not going to deteriorate the pedestrian quality of the Farmers Market and the Kerrytown District.
HD: So hypothetically, if the final proposal had been with an entrance off 4th Street across from the Farmers Market, and you had voted No, nobody would have been surprised.
HD: They would have said, Yeah, well, that's pretty much what Kunselman indicated he was going to do.
SK: Right, and I'm very clear on that kind of thing. So in that respect, I guess people would know how I'm going to vote, because I'm asking those hard questions. To wrap up that story, the Kerrytown District Association members were there and nobody was really understanding my adamant disagreement with what was going on there. Like I said, a bunch of the Commissioners were for it. The Kerrytown folks, that wasn't really their big concern. But then this woman asked, Is this going to make it difficult, or prevent us, from having our yearly block party? Everybody's eyes just went, Ah! Well! How are you going to block off 200 cars from getting in and out?! A light went on and she said, Oh, well, I'm with Steve! And all the other Kerrytown folks said, I'm with Steve. Put your driveway entrance on Main Street.
HD: So that, in fact, is how that project's going to work?
SK: And that's how that's going to come out now. So are people going to know how I'm going to vote? I would say so at some point, because I'm certainly going to illustrate and express the positive things I'm finding with it versus the negative things, or try to be encouraging, or discouraging if I'm not quite getting it. I don't think surprises are very good in public politics.
HD: Well, listen, it's almost completely dark now. If we didn't have the floodlight on, I wouldn't be able to see you at all, and I can barely see you as it is. Is there anything else you wanted to make sure we talked about before we dismount?
SK: There is one topic that hit the news yesterday: City bids for Canoe Livery Operations at the Metroparks. Did you see that in the news?
HD: I totally missed that, I have no idea what you're talking about.
SK: If you haven't read it, it's kind of interesting. Our City park administration is apparently has ...
HD: ... this'd be Jayne Miller?
SK: She's community services, but somewhere in that division, they have submitted a proposal to the Metropark Authority to operate the canoe livery out at Delhi, and maybe it's Hudson Mills as well--as a competitive proposal to Skip's Canoe Livery. Skip's has been running the livery out at Delhi for something like 25 years.
HD: Hmm, you know what, I think Conan Smith, when he was on the teeter totter, I think he mentioned that he worked for Skip's when he was a kid. I'll have to go back and re-read that interview, but I think that's right. [Ed. Note: Score one for HD, that's correct.]
HD: Let me just give you my gut reaction so far. The City is acting in the spirit of regionalism, and regionalism is good, so let's go for it.
SK: Well, [laugh] I don't quite look at it that way. I look at it as competing with the private sector in another community, for another entity. Why is our park system trying to compete with the private sector in another community for another park system?! And from what I've read in the paper, it's going to require approval from Council, and they're going to have to buy a lot of canoes, so it sounds like the City is going to have to float them a loan, to get their 'business' started and that will be a break-even operation. But city residents will be better served, because they can go from Argo to Delhi to Hudson all in City canoes with City trucks and this and that? I think we're going a little bit too far. When I was reading this ...
HD: ... now was this a full blown article or just one of those little briefs?
SK: A full blown article, with pictures of canoes and everything.
HD: Maybe I should read the paper a little more carefully.
SK: I like fairness, don't get me wrong, but if that's a service we really think is important, then what would prevent Skip's from saying, Hey, I can run your Argo Canoe Livery cheaper! We could privatize that, which I'm opposed to ...
HD: ... maybe he can [do it cheaper]?
SK: Maybe he can, right. I'm not one to privatize our public operations when it comes to our local government, but I'm certainly not one to start thinking that our local government can be a business to serve 'customers' outside our community. There's also a proposal to use Greenbelt money to buy the Knights of Columbus property out on Dexter-Ann-Arbor Road and turn that into a City park and for soccer fields. So that raises the question: Why?? I mean I'm a fan of soccer, played all my life ...
HD: ... and you've got kids who enjoy soccer?
SK: Oh, yeah, my son played soccer, and my girls have played soccer--my son now plays football for Pioneer--but yeah, we all played soccer, it's all great, nothing against those soccer groups. But I don't like the idea of a City truck going out to Scio Township to cut the grass on a soccer field that's going to serve not just Ann Arbor residents, but obviously the region. If we want to get into regional and inter-governmental cooperation, then let's build a City-County courthouse!
HD: Wow. You brought it right back around.
SK: Right back there!
HD: You're getting good at this. It's kind of scary, actually. You want to let that be the final word?
SK: That sounds good.
HD: Thanks for coming to ride!
SK: This was great, I hope to do it again sometime!