Ann Arbor's longest-serving mayor looks back on career

Jan 20, 2014

In 2000, John Hieftje began his tenure as mayor of Ann Arbor, and every two years after that, Hiefjte won reelection with numbers reflecting strong support from the people in the city. His 14-year run makes him the city’s longest-serving leader.

He recently announced he is not planning on running for reelection, a decision he says he’s been considering for the past few years.

In an two-part interview with Concentrate Magazine, Hieftje looked back on his successes and regrets about his time in office. And he said he looks forward to working on his goals for his last months in office.

One of his most notable successes, he said, was the passage of the Greenbelt millage in 2003, which aimed to preserve open spaces, farmland, and natural areas surrounding the city. Hieftje said the purpose of the millage was to mitigate sprawl and overdevelopment.

“If you look back at the history of it, in the ‘90s the growth was in the townships around the city. Sprawl was just rampant, and the fields that we had driven by for years were being turned into strip malls and subdivisions. It’s hard to look back now, but sprawl was a major issue.”

Preventing development on surrounding lands can increase development pressure on the city itself. And downtown development became a hot-button issue that candidates running for council have campaigned on. Hieftje says there’s only so much room for the city to grow:

Yeah. I don't think anybody wants Ann Arbor to turn into Austin. We really don't have the space in the city to have a big population boom.

Some critics have complained that downtown areas of the city are draining resources from surrounding neighborhoods.

In separate piece in Concentrate, Downtown Development Authority member Joan Lowenstein addresses such issues.

“The implications that resources spent improving the downtown are resources from other parts of the city is false. First of all, downtown is a neighborhood. Many of us work downtown and more and more people are living downtown...The other neighborhoods – and even surrounding communities – are woven together with downtown as a virtual tapestry.”

Both Hieftje and Lowenstein argue that development issues will be alleviated by more of an investment in transit, including improvements to the bus system and railway systems. Lowestein says the DDA is beginning a Street Framework project that will improve street, sidewalk and bike lanes, bettering not only the downtown area but additionally improving the connections to and from downtown and neighborhoods.

Hieftje said change is inevitable, but not everyone likes it.

“There’s a percentage – I have no idea what it is, maybe it’s 30 percent of the people in Ann Arbor – who really don’t want anything to change. But there’s resistance to development everywhere. Inherently, deep in their psychology, I think there’s a lot of folks who don’t like change. And yet change is what the world is about.”

- Paige Pfleger, Michigan Radio Newsroom