Rob Goodspeed

Rob Goodspeed
student, Master of Community Planning Program, University of Maryland

Tottered on: 17 February 2008
Temperature: 42 F
Ceiling: beadboard
Ground: varnished Douglas fir some glazed with ice
Wind: SSE at 16 mph

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TT with HD: Rob Goodspeed

Rob Goodspeed

[Ed. note: Rob Goodspeed founded ArborUpdate, a news and discussion blog that has continued under various capable stewardship, even after Rob's own departure from Ann Arbor. He has continued to write The Goodspeed Update, now edits for Rethink College Park and contributes to Planetizen's Interchange Blog. He's currently a student in the University of Maryland's Master of Community Planning Program. Rob's personal website includes more information on McGregor, South Africa, which is discussed briefly in the conversation below.]

HD: Don't tumble backwards because, you know, you could go right over the porch railing.

RG: Yeah, that wouldn't be good.

HD: Shall we?

RG: Okay.

HD: Welcome to the teeter totter, man.

RG: It's been a while!

HD: It's been what?

RG: I said, it's been a while since I teeter tottered.

HD: Oh, yeah. Can you actually remember the last time? Do you have any actual recollections, or is it more sort of a hazy, vague childhood memory?

RG: Yeah, pretty hazy. I could have stumbled across a playground at some point after leaving middle school, but I don't remember.

HD: So have you seen any teeter totters in College Park?

RG: You know, I have! One.

HD: Really?! Now, a legitimate teeter totter?

RG: I think, I think. When you come into College Park on the metro, you can see out the window a recreation center where they have a whole set of playing equipment for children. There's a teeter totter there. And there's a variety of other toys and stuff.

HD: So, it's not one of these deals that has springs mounted in it to make sure that things don't get out of hand?

RG: I don't think so.

HD: Because a guy who was on the teeter totter recently, he described an alleged teeter totter over at Allmendinger Park, and I went and checked it out ...

RG: ... it has a safety precaution?

HD: Well, first of all, it's super tiny. And then it has springs mounted on either side of the fulcrum, so that there's not this slow back-and-forth--I don't know how to describe the motion that we are enjoying right now--but it's more sort of a vibration, very spring-driven type deal than just a human-powered thing. Although, if pressed, it would be difficult for me to come up with a better word than 'teeter totter' to describe that object.

RG: [laugh] A 'spring totter'?

HD: Yeah, a 'spring totter'. Or you gotta build in some qualifier to make sure it's clear that it's not really a teeter totter.

But anyway, today is a lot worse than yesterday just for walking around Ann Arbor. Did you get a lot of just walking around done yesterday? Or was it a day for exploring the library, or? What are you doing here exactly?

RG: A friend of mine decided to have his bachelor party here in Ann Arbor. He and most of the party live elsewhere--we live in Washington D.C. And some of the other attendees are graduates who live in other cities, but he thought we would come back here. So we went out to eat, we walked around, and did a variety of things. Yesterday, the highlight was a surprise visit to the varsity football facilities. And I'm not a huge football fan, but it was pretty exciting ...

HD: ... I would imagine!

RG: We got to see all of their equipment ...

HD: ... no way!

RG: ... and we were just there, and Coach Rodriguez was there, and we got a picture with him, and we talked with him ...

HD: ... you got to chat with him??

RG: We did, we did! So that was pretty exciting.

HD: You didn't ask him about the 4 million dollars, did you?

RG: We didn't. We asked what he was going to do about a quarterback. He didn't really have any good answers.

HD: Yeah, because what's his name--the big guy from Arkansas, what is his name--Mallett ...

RG: ... I don't know, I don't follow it.

HD: Yeah, he was the backup this year. I think he was a freshman this year and he's sort of a huge, classic, stand-in-the-pocket passing quarterback, which doesn't match up all that well with the spread offense, as far as I understand it. So he is transferring elsewhere as far as I know.

RG: Oh, really?

HD: Yeah. So that's why I think he does have a little bit of a quarterback issue of some kind. So, I wanted to ask you about all these various online publications that you write and edit for.

RG: [laugh] The way you phrase that suggests I should cut back!

HD: Well, no! I was just thinking that there is a challenge posed by the fact that--at least as far as I assess it--there's overlapping content areas. So that you might be faced with the challenge sometimes of, Which of these online publications is something most suitable for? So, do I want to be selfish and just put this on my own blog, because this is some kind of scoop or an insight that I want to be associated with my personal brand more-so than with, say, the Rethink College Park brand, or the DCist brand. I mean, does that come up at all? And if so, what is your thought process for handling it?

RG: Basically I haven't contributed to DCist for over a year, or more--essentially, after I was editor. I contribute tips occasionally, but they have sort of continued on. And it has come up. But the way I decide is I'll think about the audience that each of them has. My personal blog, it so a much smaller audience--people who know me or have been following my activities. Planetizen is for wonky planning professionals, so if have something that would be interesting to talk about in that arena, I will put it there. And then Rethink College Park, almost everything we write is about College Park. Occasionally, we'll do more thoughtful pieces, trying to explain smart growth, or what we're trying to do, or solicit feedback from the readers. So, it's come up a couple of times, but in general it's not difficult to decide. And you can always cross-post, that's the good thing about the web. Any one of those groups of readers can quickly hop around.

HD: So, for the Rethink College Park, I was trying to figure out--in a lot of cases, efforts like that are born out of an interest in one specific issue, and then maybe it gains some traction as a more sort of general interest enterprise, or an expanded interest enterprise. But I couldn't to discern anything. It seem to more like the motivation was general interest in College Park to begin with. As opposed to, Hey, we've got to get this Purple Line built, so let's build a website that is going to further that specific goal. And, oh, by the way I guess it makes more sense to consider all of College Park as opposed to just transit, say.

RG: Yeah, when I started graduate school, I thought I would have a respite from blogging, that I wouldn't be doing it. But the site was an idea of an undergraduate. He wrote an op-ed in the paper describing in very general terms a type of website that he wanted. So that's sort of how it was born. We limit ourselves to physical development issues. But it's kind of a fuzzy line. We try to be very focused on transportation and on physical changes in the city. And so we'll go into of variety of other areas but it's all sort of centered on that type of discussion. So, yeah that's kind of how it's evolved. We've dabbled in other areas, but we try to keep it fairly clearly focused on that topic.

HD: So have you noticed any particular physical changes in Ann Arbor since the last time you were back here?

RG: I have, yeah. I walked around a little bit yesterday, and through the Diag. The last time I was here was two years ago, and even then it was just a brief visit for a friend who was graduating. I graduated 2004, so definite changes. The Kelsey Museum addition is done. I noticed, of course, Frieze is torn down, they're building that ...

HD: ... yeah, that's kind of hard to miss.

RG: The little white building that used to be the Chinese Studies Center is completely torn down and replaced with a modern office building--it's right across from Frieze. The Art Museum addition, they're building. The Ford School, I think they may have broken ground when I left, but it definitely wasn't there. And the Business School addition. I mean, what was striking was how little had changed in the city and how much had changed on campus.

HD: Yeah, I was just going to say, almost all the changes you noted there are connected specifically to the University of Michigan.

RG: That's right.

HD: They're not constrained by anything the neighbors have to say.

RG: Yeah, though they answer to their own constituency. I did notice things we were talking about are finally moving. So, for example, the Lower Town project. I remember first hearing about that, and I read that they broke ground in January, so it finally happened.

HD: Have you actually been over to there to see?

RG: I haven't, no.

HD: I haven't been over there since they broke ground. A lot of times it's just a ceremonial thing, and you can't really tell that it happened, once they remove the pavilion that they did the ground breaking under with their silver shovels and whatnot. But I haven't been over there to see if they're actually doing anything.

RG: At least it seems to have some momentum. And I noticed also this in-fill project on Liberty near Seva that I know was proposed when I was here, it's up, it's apartments.

HD: Yeah, that's built now.

RG: Yeah, somebody was leaving it this morning.

HD: Oh, did you chat with them? About how they like living there?

RG: No, no, she was in a hurry. She seemed content.

HD: Alright, we'll take that as a plus for loft development in the downtown: Goodspeed Notes that Resident Seemed Content. [laugh]

So, do you keep up with Ann Arbor development issues, or any kind of news out of Ann Arbor? Specifically, do you read Arbor Update? Is that part of your feed reader list, if that's the tool you use?

RG: Not religiously. It's more occasional reading. I tend to hear about things sort of where there's a scandal. Or when Google came, it was inevitable to hear. But I don't follow closely. But it's inevitable you sort of hear about what's going on.

HD: Just to be clear you're not like putting Google's arrival into the category of scandal, right? [laugh]

RG: No, no, no.

HD: Just intensely interesting. So is there anything that you would put in the category of scandal?

RG: No. If I did, I didn't research it enough to know if it was a true scandal. Things seem as if the ship is sailing, I haven't heard anything that pops to mind. Did you have something in mind?

HD: No, I was just curious if you had followed the most recent development in development news out of Ann Arbor, which I would say is a directive from City Council to Planning Commission to develop language for an ordinance that would require neighborhood and neighbor input to any project, whether it was a Planned Project, or a Planned Unit Development, or whatever. I'm not sure what the fine distinction is between--or it might be a gross distinction--do you know? Between a Planned Project and a Planned Unit Development?

RG: I don't. I haven't looked at exactly how it works. Generally a Planned Unit Development is larger in size, there's generally a detailed site plan review, and I think the original idea was that you would allow flexibility in zoning issues and even in uses to produce a project that is better than what would be by right under the zoning code. I don't know how that translates in Ann Arbor. They came in suburban contexts where we weren't happy with just what the code was producing, so we said, You can accumulate the lot and then as long as overall we are happy you can build it.

HD: And then for a Planned Project--well, to me, I guess the take-away for both of those kind of projects is there has be some sort of overall public benefit. If you are going to relax zoning constraints, then in exchange for that there has to be some public good, whether that is a contribution to an affordable housing fund, or ...

RG: ... park space, often ...

HD: ... or enhanced transportation. At any rate, there was a project called 42 North recently that Planning Commission--I think they had one dissenting vote, otherwise everyone voted for it. It came before Council, Council chambers were filled with angry neighbors, Council voted it down ...

RG: ... which neighborhood is this?

HD: This is near the intersection of Maple and Pauline, I think. There's a church up there. I guess, part of the area that they were going to build on is considered wetland. The developer felt like he had been--I think the quote in the paper was something like 'kicked in the stomach', because he really thought that the project was going to get approved. [Ed. note: The actual quote was 'punched in the gut'. ]

RG: So it came as a surprise to him?

HD: It came as a surprise to him. The only vote for it was the Council representative to the Planning Commission. So that makes sense that she would vote for it at Council having voted for it as representative to Planning Commission from Council. But the outcome of that was this feeling that neighbors need to be involved in the process a lot sooner. Which, I don't know, to me I think it's all well and good. I mean, I don't think that could do any harm, and might do some actual good.

But I think on the back end of the process there has to be some mechanism for Council to articulate what it considers to be a 'public good' or a 'public benefit'. That is the crux of the matter. It's not neighborhood input that's the problem, it's this failure to specify what qualifies as a 'public good'. There's people on Council who would say that if you've got an empty lot, if you build anything there, that is some public good. Which I think might be a loosey-goosey notion of 'public good', but it's not completely without merit. So, what is your sense as a student of this discipline? What counts as a 'public good', what should count as a public good?

RG: As a little anecdote in itself, this is great, because there are so many issues wrapped up in there. First off, it would be interesting to see the difference between what they were proposing and what the zoning allowed, and how different it was, what sort of exceptions they were seeking ...

HD: ... it was, I think, mainly height.

RG: It was height, okay.

HD: I think they were going to build a multi-building apartment complex specifically with the targeted demographic of students. One of the consequences was that each bedroom, they were thinking of as counting as an individual person-unit who might potentially need a car. You know, you have a three bedroom apartment you think typically that's a family, so maybe they need one parking space, if you're thinking one space per family. But if you're thinking of three students then that's potentially three cars, if you subscribe to the notion that each student might possibly need a car. So they had a whole bunch of parking planned.

RG: Interesting.

HD: You know like it was a 'sea of parking'. Bigger even then the Lowes parking lot!--that was the standard comparison. And put that way, it does sound like a lot of parking, for sure.

RG: Well, okay on the parking issue, have you heard of a book called the High Price of Free Parking?

HD: No.

RG: It's a 700-page policy tome by a planning professor [Donald Shoup] about parking. And I heard--and wouldn't be surprised if--it was the best-selling book the American Planning Association ever published. It's been extremely popular. I have been involved in a similar conversation in College Park about parking for student housing.

His [Shoup's] assumption is that the parking requirements we have in our zoning codes produce places we don't like, and they incentive driving. And he doesn't think that makes sense. If you think about it, it's hard to predict who will have a car, and then, even if they will have a car, why should we require the developer provide the space? Shouldn't it be their choice? And then choose to pass along the charge for the space?

And the other complaint he has is that parking ratios are determined assuming that the parking is free. We all know that space is not free, parking structures are very expensive. Thirty-five thousand dollars is sometimes the number used. So if we actually charge for parking, then maybe the so-called requirements would be a lot lower. And so the ratio is something like one per dwelling unit. Those are determined by going way out into the suburbs and measuring it, and that's what you will find. But that's assuming the parking is free and you're out in the suburbs.

I have looked into this, and the census asks on the long form if your household has a car. And so you can actually see, in general terms, in a community how many people actually own cars. And I have found wherever I have looked at this, especially in urban places, that the parking requirements in zoning assume that more people have cars than actually own them. For example in D.C., 37 percent of households have no cars at all.

HD: Really! Wow!

RG: What the zoning code requires is significantly higher than that--it was something like .75 spaces per unit. And student populations are even stranger because there is different conventional wisdom. I didn't have a car as a student, many students don't. Almost as a rule a lot of people in the dorms don't. But the private developers in student housing that are working nationally, and that do work in suburban contexts, assume that all of them will have cars.

HD: Or do you think it's the assumption that they will have cars, or is it the assumption that, I have a more attractive place for students to want to rent if I can basically guarantee a parking space? That, you know, I want to keep this complex fully-rented, I don't want to have the obstacle of, Oh there's no parking! And then have students who do have cars factor that in negatively.

RG: It could be. For retail especially, that's often the argument. They say, We need the parking, because we need to get tenants, we need to convince the bank to give us a loan. I think in that book Don Shoup is overly-optimistic about how easy it'll be to either convert our requirements to maximums, or to eliminate them. And he observes that even if we do that, there's a good deal of inertia built into the system. And I think that he, as a planner--they sometimes under-appreciate the other forces producing the built environment.

Zoning is important, but you're absolutely right, thinking of the developer is almost as important. If he thinks he can get more money that is enough to pay for a space, he will provide it. Anyway, it certainly sounds like at that ratio, it's un-realistic for Ann Arbor. I'm sure if you observed the student population, what percentage have a car, it would not be 100 percent. And it sort of begs the question about, Is it needed? Or maybe they just want to cater to just the rich students who have cars. Or something like that.

But the point being that if you just continually build stuff like that it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. At the end, we'll all be driving, and that's the problem. There's a lot of negative externalities. And honestly I wouldn't like Ann Arbor as much, if it was a city like that.

All of the neighborhoods I love are illegal under zoning--they have not enough parking, they're too dense, they're setbacks are too short. That's true for Ann Arbor, it's true for College Park. The neighborhood I live in in D.C., it was developed at the turn of the century before zoning. It's working really well now, and it's a paradox that we've come all this way, with all these rules, and somehow there's still a mismatch. And we're not able to do what we want.

HD: What specific neighborhoods in Ann Arbor were you thinking of that you love that are illegal according to zoning?

RG: Well, I don't know that for sure, because I don't know the zoning, but for example, things like State Street. On State Street are a whole bunch of buildings slammed up together, very little or no parking at all. Maybe there's one spot in the alley, if that. So, number one, probably not enough parking ...

HD: ... you mean, not 'enough' parking, according to modern building and zoning standards.

RG: Right. That's according to the zoning. Number two, we have lot coverage standards, and I wouldn't be surprised if many of those buildings were covering a lot higher percentage of the lot than the zoning allows.

HD: Now you're thinking of the section of State Street that runs through campus and north of campus?

RG: Yeah, right at like State and Liberty. The other issue, I'm going to assume that Ann Arbor, like most communities that have these places, has either created an overlay zone, or they allow exceptions in that neighborhood, somehow recognizing that the rules and they've got now, they don't really work there.

Then the other kind of large category is the uses. And I don't know how this works downtown, but many of those were developed for retail on the ground floor, maybe office space, maybe an apartment--very little concern for organizing uses. Now, with single-use zoning, all that stuff is illegal, or if you want to do it, it's through a special exceptions process, where you have to prove that you are giving more benefit. It used to be just default. You built a store with an apartment above it, and that's what you built. And now usually it's not the normal process, it's somehow an exception, or an overlay zone, or we come up with all these complex rules to allow them to happen.

HD: I would imagine that there is quite a contrast between considering modern uban American settings--whether it's over-lay zones and parking considerations--and then this project that you worked on in South Africa? Which, from the photos, seemed like it was a village context, right?

RG: Yes, it's in a small little village.

HD: So parking was not really on anybody's mind that you talked to, I'm guessing?

RG: No, the car-ownership rates in South Africa are rising, but much lower than in the United States. I don't remember the precise statistics, so you're absolutely right. In the big cities I think it's certainly an issue. We saw buildings in the Cape Town area that are just as atrocious as the ones in Baltimore or Detroit where the first ten stories are parking and the next five stories are office. And there actually was one building where the majority of the visible stories were parking. And then a little bit of office on top. So it was like a 12-story building and the majority of that was parking structure that happened to have an office on the top.

HD: Oh, we're beginning to get the creak going. [Ed. note: Totter 2.0, like Totter Classic, has a creak.]

RG: We are, we are breaking it in! But in McGregor, the village, you're right, it's not an issue. I don't know if it was regulated in their process. But the surprising thing is their legal structure is derived from common laws--the British system has been adapted and continued. That's an interesting part of South Africa--they had a democracy, limited racially, but still elections and a legal structure, a lot of similar patterns that we would recognize. And then the apartheid state ran it, but the ending of apartheid wasn't a legal revolution. It was an evolution, and so all the government agencies talk about transforming themselves.

HD: So there was already infrastructure in place.

RG: That's right, so all of the legal structure and everything, they think about transforming. And they have reformed a lot of it, but it was not abandoning what was there. So we found a lot of their thinking about land development similar in some ways to the way that we think about it. And that village had a review committee to ensure architectural compatibility for new buildings.

HD: Compatibility with what was already there?

RG: That's right. And the sort of tools are very similar to historic preservation for historic districts.

HD: So it wasn't like you were landing from a helicopter into the middle of a place when they had no concept for planning?

RG: No, no. But it was certainly a distinct perspective. It was some strange variations on some of those issues.

HD: So, the plan you guys put together, it was a planning/economic development type document. On the one hand that served, as far as I understand it, as sort of an academic purpose that you reported back to some organ within your university, right? Or within your program?

RG: We did. It was through the University. We provided the plan to a lot of the community and government leaders that we worked if. So we sent an electronic copy, we mailed paper copies, but it was an academic exercise primarily. We tailored it to try to be as useful as possible, recognizing that it would be up to them to make use of it.

HD: So is there a mechanism in place beyond, say, your own innate curiosity, if you choose to follow up, for actually finding out what happened with that plan and what they actually do? Or is it just going to be up to you, Rob Goodspeed, to say, Gosh, I'm curious, so I should send somebody an email and ask them what's going on.

RG: The plan we completed was a Studio Report and you're right, in general there's not a follow-up. But in practice, the professors keep relationships going--maybe a little less so with the international ones because it's just more tenuous to stay in touch. But I know there was one story where the school did a Studio for a community in Maryland, and the professor went back several years later to see what impact it was having, and it turned out that the city loved the plan we produced and was using it to apply for grant money, and taking inspiration from it. So there is some evidence that they work. But ultimately if they don't, if they decide they don't like it ...

HD: ... it's not like you have any leverage to say, Hey, man, we spent a lot of time an effort, you gotta at least do something of what we suggested!

RG: Right.

HD: So how did you actually get involved in that? Did you just volunteer and say, Hey, I want to volunteer, I want to go! Or was it an elaborate application process? They weren't just taking anybody, or?

RG: We did have to apply. My program requires a Studio like that and they offer them. They vary in location and topic, and it's kind of neat because the professors are inventing the topics maybe just a year in advance. It's always very relevant to current events or current topics. They do one in Baltimore, they do some in Maryland communities, they have done them in Washington D.C. before--we are right outside of D.C.

And then they have the three international studios and they rotate. Sidney Brower, the professor for that class, is from South Africa originally and he, since apartheid ended, has been leading South African Studios--generally in metro Cape Town because that's where he grew up and is familiar with. We have a professor who is very interested in Latin American studies, so he generally goes to Mexico or other Latin American countries and they do various projects. There's another professor who is interested in economic development issues, and she has developed relationships in St. Petersburg, Russia, so she takes a group and they study development issues in St. Petersburg--which I've heard stories about.

HD: So the whole thing runs off of the personal connections that the professors in the program have cultivated. It's not like somebody just said out of the blue, Hey let's go to South Africa!

RG: That's right. And it's nice, because, for instance, in the case of Professor Brower, he speaks Afrikaans. Most people in Cape Town speak English, but it was a nice resource that we used occasionally. And they have local familiarity to sort of get you pointed in the right direction. I really enjoyed it.

HD: So he was along for the studio?

RG: That's right, yes.

HD: Well, you know when you mentioned the bachelor party and going out to eat, I wondered did you guys go to the Blue Nile, where you used to work?

RG: No, I like to go back to the Blue Nile when I visit, but I didn't make it on this trip. The bachelor is a meat-lover, so we went to the Chop House.

HD: Oh! With the anatomically correct logo!

RG: That's right, and we dined in one of their wine-tasting rooms, a private room with all the bachelor party members. I don't eat steak often, but when I do, it's nice to eat a good steak.

HD: The steak there is not bad. I ate there once, because I had a gift certificate. What I didn't care for was the little story that they tell about where the meat comes from, and how it was grown. Do they still do that?

RG: Um, remind me, what's the story you remember?

HD: Well it's not so much a story with like a plot, as it is just the background on the cattle, and the breeds, and how they're fed in Australia or whatnot. And to me that's relatively uninteresting. I just trust that if you're calling this place the Chop House you're going to have ...

RG: ... good meat. That's what I assume!

HD: So was it good?

RG: Yes, it was good.

HD: So is there anything else you want to make sure we covered before we hop off the teeter totter?

RG: No, I knew you would ask about parking, so I was just reading that book ...

HD: ... you read a 700-page book as preparation to ride the teeter totter??!

RG: No, no. I'm reading it for my own purposes, but. Thanks for inviting me.

HD: Well, I'm thrilled that you were able to stop by. I'm sorry that the weather was not more accommodating. But what can you do, it's February.