Richard Murphy

Richard Murphy
Ypsilanti, Michigan

Tottered on: 1 March 2008
Temperature: 23 F
Ceiling: clear blue
Ground: brownfield (snow-covered)
Wind: W at 13 mph

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TT with HD: Richard Murphy

Richard Murphy

[Ed. note: For a larger version of the panorama, in which the lettering on the Ypsilanti Iron and Metal sign is legible, click on the photograph. This totter ride took place in the parking lot of the old 555 Building off the south side of Michigan Avenue right smack in the middle of Water Street.

In addition to his work as a city planner for Ypsilanti, Richard Murphy is a core contributor to ArborUpdate and maintains a personal blog called Common Monkeyflower. ]

HD: Alright, welcome to the teeter totter!

RM: Well, thank you! I think you're a little heavier than I am.

HD: What's that?

RM: I think you're heavier than I am.

[Ed. note: garden-variety adjustments of position ensue. The opening topic refers to Mittenfest at the Elbow Room, where HD had his bicycle trailer loaded down with gear to pedal-power Charlie Slick's bubble machine. Champions of Breakfast were second to perform after Charlie Slick.]

HD: I am also right on the very end, almost. I've got a lot of extra gear on today to keep myself warm. First of all, thanks for the hand in carting the trailer out of the Elbow Room after Mittenfest. That was really helpful.

RM: I was happy to help. Anything to promote the cause of pedal-powered bubbles!

HD: So, now, honest opinion, what did you think of the Champions of Breakfast?

RM: I thought they were highly entertaining!

HD: Yeah! Although, I have to say when they first started I was really irritated, because I was trying to get myself together and scoot out the door and get the trailer out the door before they started. And if they had given me like a minute more to ...

RM: ... it would have been clear.

HD: Yeah, I was almost there. So, I was in a really foul temper at the start thinking about having to stand there and wait through their entire set. Because I was thinking, Okay, this can't be good enough that by the end I'm going to be happy about having stood here. But I have to say those guys, you know, anybody working that hard on stage, first of all, and, second of all, didn't actually sound half bad, either!

RM: Right. And I have spent enough of my life playing Dungeons and Dragons that I appreciated the ...

HD: ... oh, so you got all the references!?

RM: Yes.

HD: I had the vague sense that there was stuff going on that I was not really getting. Still, even for an outsider to the Dungeons and Dragons scene, it was good entertainment to be sure. So, did you go to Mittenfest because that would be something you would ordinarily do, or because you figured Brandon Zwagerman would, I dunno, beat you up when he came back to town, if you didn't go?

RM: Well, Brandon has always been pretty good at making sure I go to things. Most of my local music exposure has been Brandon saying, Hey, go to that! Or, Hey, come to this! And even when he's been in New York, he'll say, Hey, you should go to this show! So it's really his fault that I go to any of these things. But he kind of got me in the habit where if it's close enough to home--and the Elbow Room and the Corner Brewery are five blocks away from home. I would not have gone to Mittenfest if it were anywhere but Ypsilanti, just because I'm lazy in my local music appreciation.

HD: So, have you been back to the Elbow Room since Mittenfest?

RM: Yeah, at least once or twice.

HD: So you going back, let's see, is it next Friday? You know who's playing next Friday?

RM: No.

HD: Bathgate's playing next Friday.

RM: Oh, okay.

HD: He's playing everything and everywhere right now, I guess, apparently. Well, where would you take somebody, say like a prospective developer for this site, Water Street, somebody who had an interest in this site, they flew into town, and they handed this person over to you and said, Okay, Murph, show this person an interesting time in Ypsilanti! Besides the Elbow Room, where would you take them?

RM: Well, if it's a work-related function that cuts out most of the things that might involve alcohol, such as the Corner Brewery. If it were a developer who wanted to see the site, I'd probably start in downtown, and walk out to the site, walk the river, and ...

HD: ... so you have a standard tour that you give of the site for people who might be interested?

RM: That I have given a few times. Just, I think the important parts are one, just the size of it--getting people out to walk it so they realize just how big 38 acres is.

HD: Yeah, that's actually interesting, 38 acres, that's an easy fact to find, but I'm not sure that people really understand how big that is. I drew a map for ArborWiki for the Water Street Development page--you know there's a little function where you can draw an enclosure and shade in the area--and once you draw it in, and look at it in the context of all of Ypsilanti, it's quite a large blob.

RM: Yeah, it's something like about a third of a mile end-to-end along Michigan Avenue, and almost half a mile along the river edge, so it's got good frontage to work with. And it's only yay-far to downtown, and three or four blocks up to Depot Town.

HD: Yeah, it's only like two blocks right up to City Hall, right?

RM: Right.

HD: It's got a lot of trees, as well. That was the one document that I was really able to get some traction with--the tree list. The whole brownfield development plan, that's not stuff I really know how to read. I mean, can read the words, but. But the tree list and the tree plot, man, there's a lot of trees! So somebody went through and documented each and every tree?!

RM: Yeah. And basically that's somebody with a GPS goes up and pushes a button at each tree and measures the diameter and so forth ...

HD: ... and the height, it looked like?

RM: Yeah, I think so.

HD: And identified the variety. Off the top of your head, do you know what the most prevalent kind if tree is on the property?

RM: Mmm, no, I don't.

HD: I think it's Box Elder.

RM: That's probably true.

HD: And after that is Cottonwood. Not a lot of Elm trees--some, but not a lot. Not a lot of Ash trees, either.

RM: Yet, I think there's probably a reason for that.

HD: [laugh] Yes. So, the tree survey, it is that just like a standard part--I mean, it would be negligent not to do one? Or did somebody think this is a positive point that we really ought to document? Or is that just par for the course?

RM: I think to some extent it's mostly a standard practice thing--that just one of the things you do is you go out and you document trees. This project has been in active development for ...

HD: ... close to a decade?

RM: Close to ten years now. And in sort of conceptual development for more like 25, so there's a lot of background that I wasn't involved in. I imagine some amount of the tree surveying was based on the fact that the trees are all against the river. So we have to do some amount of documenting and preserving what's there for the DEQ.

HD: So, the DEQ would care if somebody came in and said, Hey, lots of trees, the first step this to cut them all down and sell them as timber!

RM: Right. They would probably want to see a slightly different plan than that.

HD: [laugh] I know that you are involved with Water Street at least to the extent that you have handled some of the questions that have come in with respect to the RFP, and you have updated the city's website with the answers to those questions.

RM: Well, things like that, I'm mostly the person who is most comfortable touching the website. And other people say, Here! Rather than them figuring out how to get this document on the website and where to best put it, they give it to me and have me do it.

HD: So there's not like a fancy content management system?

RM: We use Zope, which which the County provides to all of the municipalities to use for their website, and which I am not a big fan of. It seems to take entirely too many steps to do anything. And it also tries to be too WYSIWYG when you're editing pages and makes for unfortunate HTML. So when I want to do anything specific, it takes a lot of going back and forth to make sure that the WYSIWYG editor doesn't screw up whatever I just tried to do in HTML.

HD: So is there an option to just write it yourself in a text editor and then just paste it in?

RM: I believe the way that Zope works is that you if you enter any HTML--the only interface we have is through Zope--if you put in HTML, you have to go back to the WSIGWYG editor, which will erase anything it doesn't understand before you can publish it live.

HD: But whatever its weaknesses, you managed to get the answers up to the questions up there on the website.

RM: Yeah.

HD: I guess that's a positive sign--or maybe I'm being overly optimistic where there is no reason to be optimistic--but if you put out an RFP and people actually ask questions, that's better that if it just echoes ...

RM: ... right, if nobody notices or cares.

HD: Yeah, if nobody needs any clarification at all. Now that RFP is not actually for developing this site, that is for somebody to market ...

Friendly Ypsilantian: ... are you guys having fun?

HD: We are having a tremendous amount of fun.

RM: We are having tons of fun.

Friendly Ypsilantian: How long have you been doing that?

HD: Not long, and not much longer.

Friendly Ypsilantian: Ya'll have a good one!

RM: Thanks!

HD: Thank you! Yeah, so, the RFP is not about ...

RM: ... right, it's not about developing the site, it's about getting a developer. So basically the idea is that instead of our trying to get a developer, we find somebody else who might have more experience getting developers.

HD: Right, somebody who does that all day every day. A 'professional'.

RM: And get them to figure out how best to market this site to who. Or if it should be marketed in a couple of chunks to a couple of different people, then how to get that done.

HD: So, by a 'couple of chunks' you mean geographically, maybe it needs to be divided somehow?

RM: Right. We would say maybe that the Michigan Avenue frontage is one type of development that a certain set of developers could deal with, whereas maybe the interior would be a different kind of development that is somebody else's expertise ...

HD: .... and maybe the river front something else entirely?

RM: Right.

HD: So the City is at this point open to pretty much any creative idea that might lead to success?

RM: Well, I at one point proposed a space elevator and that idea didn't get too much traction. So we might not quite be open to any idea.

HD: So there might be like parameters involved? Well, you know, the elevator in the Freighthouse could be like the start to get some experience building elevators in general and then move from that to a space elevator.

RM: There's a little bit more distance involved, but yes. Start with little elevators and work our way up.

HD: I'm trying to think, what else did I think would be interesting to talk about besides trees in Water Street ...

RM: ... well, I wanted to ask you about this somewhat threatening-sounding comment you left on ArborUpdate about you might to move to Ypsilanti anyways?

HD: Oh!

RM: Are you actually wanting to move to Ypsilanti anyways, or you were just saying whatever it takes to get the totter back?

HD: That was mere rhetorical flourish.

RM: Okay.

HD: [laugh] No, when we were looking for a house to buy, once we decided that this general area was the place where we wanted to live out the rest of our lives, we absolutely looked at houses in Ypsilanti, and the deciding factor basically was the commute back to Ann Arbor, which would have most likely been along the Washtenaw corridor. And actually while driving back from looking at a really nice house ...

RM: ... and Washtenaw is not necessarily what you want to look at the beginning and the end of the day.

HD: Yeah, we just thought, Man, just think about this trip each way. And I guess the assumption there was that we would be driving it more often than not. But even, I dunno, cycling along that corridor is not fun. I came today by Packard, which when I have to--actually it's not that I ever have to--but when I choose to cycle over to Ypsi, I typically take the Packard route because it's way more pleasant.

RM: It's much friendlier and has lower traffic and fewer lights, I think.

HD: Actually, today was a good test of something that Rene Greff claimed on the very first teeter totter ride for Teeter Talk--she said that you could actually see where the Ypsi snow-plowing effort stopped, and where the Ann Arbor people took over, because there was such a dramatic difference in the road. It's not as far out of Ypsi as I figured it would be, but there is a place--I don't know what the name of the crossroad is, but you can see it. It was where I could see the water tower, and then there is another regular modern water tower off to the right.

RM: You were probably right about where the high school is.

HD: But it was on the Ann Arbor side of the high school. And right about there the road was down to pavement. I mean, it was wet pavement, but up until that point it was totally snow-covered. Packard was snow-covered all the way from downtown Ann Arbor to there. And you know, not that much snow fell.

RM: In between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti is Pittsfield township and then Ypsilanti township--the Road Commission plows those. So there's three parties in between. But that is something that I hear a lot, that Ypsilanti's roads are better-plowed and then anywhere around ...

HD: ... so, how do they do that? Seriously. You would think that of those municipalities that Ypsilanti would have the toughest time, what with the financial crunch, but they can sure get those roads clear.

RM: Well, for now, yeah. We're not yet at a point where it takes a very long long to get the streets clear. I don't know the logistics of snow plowing, when they start plowing, or how long they plow for, or how many plows they have. Some of it is that Ypsi is pretty close together, so it's not like there's so much distance to travel to get to any one particular road, as Ann Arbor or some of the townships have much more ground to cover.

HD: Yeah, that could be, but I would think that they would have that much more equipment. But anyway, Ypsi can totally claim bragging rights for now anyway. So you alluded to this general time of financial crisis. Maybe this is my imagination but it seems to me that I've read about at least a couple or maybe even three or four people in the planning department leaving over the last two to three years?

RM: Let's see, just before I started there were four people in the planning department. Three of them left within about six months. One went to a job with the County, one went to a job with SEMCOG, one moved to to Portland. And so I think one of those positions was eliminated at that time, I was hired to fill one of them, and my boss, the planning director, was hired to fill the third one. My officemate, Nathan, who was the only one of the four who didn't leave at that time, just took at job up in Howell a couple of weeks ago.

HD: So there has been 100 percent turnover in the last three years?

RM: Right.

HD: From what you said about your involvement with Water Street I got the idea that you were not really the main person responsible for that?

RM: Right.

HD: So, whose nightmare is it?

RM: Whose nightmare is it?! I'd like to think it's not quite so bad as that!!

HD: Well, I mean, to look at it from a positive point of view, I think maybe that Ypsilanti as a community has turned the corner on the argument about who is to blame and is really sort of thinking about, Okay, who can be the hero now? Is that your sort of assessment as well, or?

RM: I think Water Street has enough history behind it, that there are all sorts of attitudes and opinions. There's probably somebody in the community whose thinks everything on the spectrum from It's dandy the way it is! to It's never going to be anything ever regardless of what we do! I would say I'm fairly optimistic. It is an enormous asset. Not many communities have a chunk of land this size and in this location that they have control over. So it's certainly something that we can work with. And make something good happen to.

HD: So who is it that basically is the point person with a city.

RM: The assistant city manager, April [McGrath].

HD: Well, listen, is there anything else you wanted to make sure we covered?

RM: I don't think so, no. You look a little chilly.

HD: Yeah, it's hard to dress for these on-location things in the winter, because I've got to dress basically not super-, super-insulated for the bike ride ...

RM: ... tottering doesn't keep your temperature quite as high.

HD: Yeah, teeter tottering is pretty easy, wouldn't you say?

RM: I'd say so.

HD: You're not exerting yourself too much are you?

RM: No.

HD: Well listen, thanks a lot for riding.

RM: Thanks for coming all the way to Ypsi to do it!

HD: It's no trouble, really. It's a spectacular day, really. When you look around ...

RM: ... it's nice and clear and sunny.

HD: I like the idea of tottering in semi-public settings. I mean, I guess, this is as public as you can get, but you would have to trudge ...

RM: ... it's not as if we were totterring on the sidewalk.

HD: Which would probably--they would probably ticket you, right? I mean, you're not allowed to ride your bicycle on the sidewalk in Ypsi, right?

RM: Within downtown and within Depot Town.

HD: Yeah, I was thinking about hopping onto the sidewalk this last little stretch and I thought, Well, no. Because I remember reading something about Ypsi not liking people to ride their bikes on the sidewalk.

RM: Yeah, it's pretty much within central business districts there. There's an ordinance against bicycling on the sidewalks. Which, as a pedestrian, I'm pretty happy with, since I've nearly been hit or knocked into traffic numerous times by bicycles on the sidewalk. I can understand maybe if you've got like a three-year-old kid in tow, and you don't want them biking on Michigan Avenue. But if you're going whiz down the sidewalk at top speed, you probably shouldn't be doing that downtown.

HD: I've never been a fan of bicycling on the sidewalk. I mean as a cyclist. You can't go very fast, because there are people walking.

RM: Yeah, I really didn't do much cycling at all between about middle school and just couple of years ago ...

HD: ... well, it's just like riding a bike, you know!

RM: Right! in fact, it's exactly like riding a bike, because it is riding a bike! But when I started up again and had to remember how to do it, I just started on the street and never really thought about the sidewalk as a reasonable option. Just because there's just more space to work with on the street.

HD: This was back over in Ann Arbor when you were sort of re-acclimating yourself to the bicycle as a machine?

RM: Yeah, this was three or four years ago in grad school probably.

HD: God, what is that noise?

RM: I think it's that airplane.

HD: Ah. It seems to be making a lot of racket. Okay, listen, thanks for riding! And I'll let you off now.

RM: Okay!