TT with HD: Carsten Hohnke
[Ed. note: Carsten Hohnke is president of West Pole, Inc. Before and after the recount of votes cast in the Democratic primary election in August (briefly discussed below), Hohnke tallied more votes than Vivienne Armentrout, the other candidate in that election. In the fall general election, Ward 5 voters will decide between Hohnke and John Floyd, who received the Republican Party's nomination in its uncontested primary. Additional background: Hohnke grew up hearing German spoken at home, and has excellent command of the language.]
HD: Welcome to the teeter totter!
CH: Thanks for inviting me, this is great! It's been a long time since I have been on a teeter totter!
HD: Yeah? Do you remember, growing up in Ann Arbor, there being teeter totters anywhere?
CH: You know, I do. And I don't know whether I'm making it up or not. But I do remember, I think--I want to say at Eberwhite, and I want to say at Virginia Park. I have a pretty good memory of a merry-go-round at Virginia Park.
HD: Really? One that is no longer there?
CH: That is no longer there.
CH: So yeah, it's hard to tell, those distant memories, just how reliable they are. I remember there being handles, though, Dave! [laugh]
HD: Don't start with me and handles! [laugh] So yesterday we had a whole bunch of rain. Turned this place into a swamp, pretty much.
HD: Everywhere. Which was appropriate this morning. My morning reading was the white paper on your website--"Escaping from the Swamp".
HD: "Managing Business Rules in a Complex World" or something like that.
HD: So I'm just wondering, when you think about the prospect of serving on city council, I mean, it's not a business per se, it's an organization. But that's what you guys do, it's like organizational management [Ed. note: A groaning is emitted from the totter.]--wow, I wish it wasn't doing that, let's pause it a second.
CH: [laugh] Has it happened before?
HD: Oh it's happened before. Every time I think I need to add some silicone or something. Oh well, let's just pause it and maybe resume in a few minutes. Where was I?
CH: I think it's a skill set that I bring, that will allow me to make unique contributions--like all of the different skill sets that other people bring. The lawyers on council, the other scientists on council--they all bring their skill sets. It's not something that drove me to run for council like, Oh, this is what we need, total process reengineering, right? [laugh] So it's not something that was a major driver. But it's something that I think I bring, and that helps me understand what the potential for efficient process delivery can look like. And then just the tools that are used to help organizations continually improve themselves. I think there's actually a lot of that already going on in the city. I don't know if Matt Naud and those guys call it "a balanced scorecard" but if you look at the environmental page ...
HD: ... oh, this is with the State of the Environment report?
HD: You can see how well or not we're doing. That's actually something that people generally point to as one of the better aspects of the city's website. One of the sections that's actually pretty well done.
CH: It's a great example of the best practices in visualizing information. There's an enormous amount of information that's carried by one glance at this page. And so that, for instance, is something that I was excited to see. That's an example of things that can transfer from the process engineering world.
HD: Well, you're not an attorney, so you don't bring that skill set. Yet at the recount last week, you clearly were totally up to speed on the legal issues ...
HD: ... with respect to what should count as a valid ballot what should be voided etcetera.
CH: I like to be prepared!
HD: Yeah. So after the fact I rummaged around, and actually a couple of different people sent me the actual language of the law, which says, I think, if you place a mark on a ballot "for the purpose of distinguishing it"...
CH: ... right ...
HD: ... then that ballot shall be void." And the ballot that you raised a concern about, it was this symbol that was a readily describable symbol--you could describe it as either "a heart" or a "13" or a letter "B". So if someone had placed it there for the purpose of distinguishing it, it would have been successful.
HD: So the question in my mind was--well, it requires you to speculate on what the purpose of it was. That I guess is open to interpretation. But I guess, if it had been me, I probably would have escalated it to the level of a formal challenge.
CH: You would have?
HD: I would have. Because I would have figured, as long as we are doing the recount, for heaven sakes, this is something that should be since decided in a formal context--or maybe it's just because I'm that way. But you didn't take it to that level, you basically accepted the judgment of the board of canvassers right there at the table.
HD: So, why not? Why didn't you escalate it?
CH: Because I didn't think that in the end it would make a difference. And I think for the sake of moving a process along at that point--maybe you remember, I forget exactly where we were in the total span, but it wasn't right at the beginning.
HD: I think that three or four of the precincts [out of 11] had already finished their recount at that point.
CH: And so it was clear to me that there wasn't going to be any significant change in the tally. It wasn't something that I wanted to force on the canvassers in the process, too. Because once you formally challenge it, it has be separated out and placed in a separate envelope, that triggers off this whole procedural thing takes more resources away from the county and the city. I just didn't think it was going to make a difference.
HD: All right. So I was just curious--this is idle curiosity talking here--have you chatted with Stew Nelson at all?
CH: Oh, yeah!
HD: About flying?
CH: Yeah, yeah! Stew and his wonderful wife Jan, and Heather and I, had dinner together at the--what was it, it was the Washtenaw County Democratic--I forget exactly what the event was, but Dingell came out ...
HD: ... so it was an official Democratic Party event.
CH: It was an official large Democratic Party gathering--I'm just blanking right now what it was.
HD: Where was it held?
CH: It was held at Eastern [Michigan University]. It was the annual dinner. So it was at Eastern and we sat at the table with Stew and Jan. So we chatted a lot. And I have chatted with him, too, a few times, just because we've run into each other. But yeah, we chatted a little bit about flying.
HD: So what kind of planes can you fly? Can you find the really big ones?
CH: Well, no. [laugh] It depends on what the definition of "big" is. They are big enough for me! I have a single-engine pilot's license. So the way that pilot's licenses work is you have a number of ratings that allow you to fly different types of aircraft. So mine is a single-engine, so that kind of limits the size. It's also limited to anything less than 12,500 pounds. That can actually end up being a really large aircraft--the typical Cessnas that people fly are more like 2000 pounds. But I fly small recreational--they're called 'general aviation' aircraft. Nothing like Stew flies!
HD: Can you fly with instruments? And like at night and stuff like that?
CH: That's another rating that differentiates pilots: visual versus instrument ratings. I don't have an instrument rating.
HD: All right, so it's got to be like a clear day.
HD: Like today, could you go up on a day like today?
CH: I would have to check the exact conditions. I can't tell exactly what the cloud ceiling is right now. But that's one of the major determinants of whether you are within visual flight rules or not: what the ceiling above the ground of the cloud layer is. So if it's above 1000 feet, I think that's technically allowed. I personally have much more conservative criteria. [laugh] Probably I'm guessing that we are probably around 1000 feet now.
HD: So were you aware that there is a contingent from Chapel Hill that arrived in town yesterday, and that is paying a visit to Ann Arbor to learn how we do things?
CH: I had heard that they were coming. I didn't realize that they were in town.
HD: So apparently some of the contingent took a bus tour with Peter Allen. In the report that has been filed with the local paper down there, I saw it online this morning, it said something like "Ann Arbor is all about densifying and getting rid of cars. And they are replacing all of our 4 to 7-story buildings with 10 to 20-story buildings."
CH: Oh, no kidding?!
HD: This is the impression that was won on that bus tour. So it makes me curious, Hmm, what was Peter Allen exactly telling these guys?
HD: So height limits were a part of your issues platform. Th way that we limit heights now downtown is through floor area ratios (FAR).
HD: So when you are saying that you are for height limits, are you saying that that way of limiting heights is not effective or not desirable and that we should just go with an absolute X-number of stories, ...
CH: ... well, I think that the issue with floor area ratios is that, as we learned with 601 South Forest, you can get surprised.
HD: Yeah, like really badly.
CH: Really badly surprised, right. [laugh] Yeah, and I think that what we discovered there, there is--I don't want to call it a loophole--but there is this kind of ...
HD: ... it just doesn't create clear expectations on the part of people who live in the city.
CH: In the discussion about what the FARs for South University should be, there was I think the consensus, if not the overwhelming expectation, that the FARs were going to provide some practical maximum to the size of buildings that could be there. And what we discovered was that they don't. So I think that the remedy for that is then to say explicitly as a community that okay ...
HD: ... to figure out what the exact number is?
CH: To say this is what we want, so that we're not surprised. And so that citizens can have a good sense that they won't wake up tomorrow and there will be this dramatic change to their environment.
HD: So, any idea about what you think the number should be? I mean, it all depends on where you start the discussion, right? Because there are some people who would say, Okay, four. We'll start it at four. And you might work up to six. As far as I understand how materials and heights are related, once you get to five stories or maybe six, codes require elevators and certain reinforcements that essentially force a price so high for construction that it doesn't make any sense to build a 7-story building. You got a build something at least 10 or 11.
CH: That's my understanding, too. It's right around six floors where you kind of have the codes. And also I think the engineers and the architects switch to mostly concrete and steel, and that has a certain amount of expense that goes with it. So it becomes a very different building at seven stories than it does at five. Or wherever that line is.
HD: That was actually one of the things that--oh, what is his first name--Alex. Alex de Parry was emphasizing in his presentation to planning commission for City Place, that this is not a high-rise structure. There's one elevator, but for the rest of it we should think of it as just a really big house.
HD: Actually, your name came up ...
CH: ... I understand!
HD: Oh, you've heard?
CH: Well, you know I watch those things if I can't make it there. I'm usually watching live and TiVoing it--as sick as that sounds.
HD: Wow, so you're a CTN guy.
CH: I am.
HD: Alright, so you saw John Floyd suggest that--I mean I think he had his tone firmly planted in his cheek when he was saying that City Place would be a benefit to him personally ...
CH: ... one hopes that he doesn't think wish what is bad policy for the community ...
HD: ... no, I think he was definitely being playful there. But yeah, he said basically if this goes through this would be great because then he could Photoshop Carsten and John Hieftje's picture onto this project and then circulate it around the whole west side and maybe improve his chances--I think he said from one in 1 in 10 to 4 in 10. [Ed. note: Floyd, along with Hohnke, is running for the Ward 5 city council seat in November.]
CH: Yes, he has it thoroughly analyzed!
HD: That was the same meeting where he introduced this notion of zeitgeist.
CH: Well, we were chatting about this earlier. I think of zeitgeist as something that is, if not ephemeral, then changeable. The whole notion of it is a 'feeling of the times'. And I think implicit in that is that it changes over time. So there was a different zeitgeist in the 80's and there is today. So I'm not exactly sure what he is getting at when he talks about zeitgeist. I think what he means is "Ann Arbor's special character." I think what he means is something less ephemeral.
HD: Something more permanent?
CH: Something more permanent in the community, that is what we all love about Ann Arbor. Its accessibility, its small-town character, and the kind of disproportionate amount of culture and vitality that we have in this community for the size that it is. So I think that's what he was getting at. But I'm not sure what he meant by zeitgeist.
HD: It's interesting to me, people always describe Ann Arbor as being really a small town, has this small-town feel. And whenever I hear the phrase "small town" I think of this song that John Cougar Mellencamp wrote called Small Town.
CH: Right, right, right.
HD: I am from his [Mellencamp's] part of the country. I grew up about 20 miles away from where his recording studio is. And there's a line in that song that I fundamentally and absolutely disagree with, which is something to the effect--I'm trying to remember what the exact lyric is--in a small town "people let you be just what you want to be." And it's like, no, that's exactly the opposite of what a small town is. People don't let you be just what you want to be. They know what you're doing, they are always in your business, they know your business, and they don't want to let you be what you want to be, they're always trying to get you to be something else. To me that's exactly the aspect of Ann Arbor that I chafe under. But I don't think that really there's a sense that Ann Arborites are interested in cultivating and embracing the idea that people are going to be different from them. I don't know, that's just my perspective. Maybe it's just that I'm grumpy because I can't have chickens, so I feel like the world is arrayed against me.
CH: You're still going through the grieving process on that, huh? [laugh]
HD: [laugh] I don't know. So I mean, what's your sense of that particular aspect of Ann Arbor? Do you get the sense that basically here in Ann Arbor you can be whatever you want to be and that there is a support for that?
CH: Well I think, it's all relative. As you suggested, right? I'm guessing that when you say you grew up near John Mellencamp's recording studio that that is a smallish town?
CH: And so you've had a different experience. When I was in graduate school my thesis advisor's wife was from New Delhi.
HD: Another small town.
CH: Another small town. [laugh] And while I was there, I lived in Dorchester, commuted up on the Red Line into Cambridge. But she and my advisor lived in Cambridge near campus. I was talking with her and she said, Carston, I had a real hard time adjusting, I feel like there are crickets chirping, I am used to having some people around me. And this is downtown Cambridge, kind of snuggled in the middle of greater metropolitan Boston!
HD: And she felt like it was kind of empty?
CH: And she felt like she had to walk 12 miles to the nearest neighbor. And so you know it's all kind of relative. In Ann Arbor, I think there is definitely a value here--and one of the things I love about Ann Arbor--is that I think we try as a community, I think our inclination is towards progressive values. And I think that part of that is allowing people to be who they are, and respecting differences among different ways of seeing the world and living in a community and that kind of thing. I think that every community has trouble executing on its best intentions. And there are some places--like we were talking about, historic district regulations on what you can and can't do with your house and some limits on expressing your individuality. At the same time, this is a community that fights hard for same-sex partner benefits, that recognizes that there are different types of families. And so I think that I tend to be pretty proud of what we reach for. We don't always get there.
HD: With respect to the historic districts--and you mentioned this idea of zeitgeist being something that changes, and that sort of evolves through time--my question with respect to historic districts in particular is: For how long do we have them? Because surely the answer can't be forever.
HD: So there is some point between now and forever where we have to reasonably, I think, be willing to say it's a time where we must reevaluate. But that's not the way these things are set up, right? They're set up, they are established, period. And in order to remove them, and in order to say, Look this is no longer serving our community interest, it takes a battle. And I feel like it shouldn't take a battle. It should be automatically reevaluated on a regular basis. Maybe that regular basis would have to be all that frequent, maybe it should be every 20 years.
CH: Right. Well I think that's you know that's obviously one of the challenges Ann Arbor has, making sure that we keep things affordable and not end up having to increase the millage so that we can pay for the stuff that we are used to having. I think that's one of, if not the primary challenge, that we have in the city: the costs are rising faster than our revenue.
HD: As opposed to declining?
CH: As opposed to declining. So we have to look at ways to increase the tax base. And I think that is the big challenge for the community. How do we want to do that? What rate of growth is appropriate for the cost challenges that we have? Somewhere between zero and infinity is how fast we want to grow. And I think that's a big question for the community, to the extent that you can have an impact the rate of growth: What do we want that to be?
HD: I guess I would think of that in terms of relative to outside Ann Arbor but still in Washtenaw County. I mean, traditionally there has been a population advantage in the city centers, and I don't know what the statistics are off the top my head, but we are losing ground. The out county areas are growing faster than than the city of Ann Arbor.
HD: And it has do with how much it costs to live here.
CH: Right, and with the larger macro economic forces that have been supporting the home-building industry, and the transportation solutions that we have ...
HD: ... that we invest huge dollars in roads to allow people who live out in the boondocks to get wherever they need to get ...
CH: ... always just responding by increasing the bandwidth of traffic flow from the south of our community to the north of our community. And that is not going to help make things a little bit more consolidated.
HD: So when we do face these financial hurdles, is now the best time do you think to be building a police-courts facility? Or you see this as something--to draw an analogy to flying, there is a technical term when you're heading down the runway and there's some point at which you can't really just roll to a stop. There is a point of no return, and you've got to give it your best shot, and if you crash well, then so be it. So maybe we're past that point for the police-courts facility? Is it called a "point of no return" or what is it?
CH: Actually Stew would know this better than I, because it just doesn't come up much in a Cessna. [laugh] But it's a speed. There are a number of different operating speeds that have names in flying. So you have the speed at which you no longer want to put the flaps down, because they will get ripped off. Or the landing gear. And there is a speed at which the airline pilots know, we're rotating and going up, once we are beyond that speed. This is the speed at which we are taking off.
HD: So at that point, you can't say, Oh wait, let me try again, let me put the brakes on, you just have to go.
CH: You are committed.
HD: Okay, so you are committed. Or like the analogy in basketball would be, if want to drive to the hoop, then you gotta just drive.
CH: Once you make the crossover dribble, just keep going.
HD: Right, exactly. So do you see us in that situation? Is that why you would say that you want to support it [police-courts facility], or do you even actually support continuing to go down this path of building this police-courts facility?
CH: I think too often the connection between building that building and our macro economic environment is not what some people have characterized it to be. You know the fact that the economy is where it is today, I don't think is as relevant as people do as to whether we are going to build a building for our community that is supposed to last 50 years or more. You have to take into account what the city's finances are in particular, what are we trying to do in this building, and how long is it going to be in our community. So I think these arguments about what the price of gold is today, or the fact that the market took a dive today--by the way, nice to be spending Black Monday with you!
HD: Black Monday??
CH: Well, I don't know if you saw it in the news, Lehman went bankrupt and Merrill Lynch got bought out by Bank of America. Markets were down 300-400 points at opening.
HD: Oh, really!
CH: Yeah. Just to cheer you up!
HD: Good, now I'm feeling better. [laugh]
CH: But I think that those things shouldn't really factor into a decision about whether to issue bonds to pay for this infrastructure improvement. So I think that's one. Now the second part of your question was, Should we build this building--independent of what the macro environment is. I think financially the plan is a sound one. Now the question is, Is that what we want to spend our money on? And I've talked about this during the primary campaign a number of times.
HD: You know it's interesting, you mention the Library Lot just now. At the most recent development advisory committee meeting, they were discussing the new underground parking garage, city staff had done its initial site plan review, and they were conveying what they were going to require on resubmission in order to actually sign off on the site plan.
CH: As far as I understand the parking structure design they are including in that design, building it in a way with a column supports etcetera that will allow development on top of that.
HD: And then the question is, how much of that cost for instance--this is slightly off topic, but--how much of that cost then do you attribute to future developments if you're talking about how expensive it is to build that parking structure? There are no current RFPs out for what to do with that space. So my understanding was that it's going to be some kind of urban green space for the time being. I think that the question is going to be how much to invest in that, if the community decides in the future that that is a place to develop. But I think clearly that's right in the center of downtown, next to the library, across from the transit center. It's certainly a good candidate for doing something.
HD: Listen, is there anything else you want to make sure we covered before we hop off of this thing?
CH: I think this was a wonderful, thanks for having me!
[Ed. note: This was a good place to end the transcript. However, a brief subsequent conversation on the totter included discussion of a little tune called Der Regenwurm, which HD is particularly fond of. Here's how it goes: