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January 12, 2006 - Image 14

Resource type:
The Michigan Daily, 2006-01-12

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The Willow Run plant has been producing automotive and aeronautical parts since 1941.

Surviving and Thriving
GM's Willow Run plant stays strong
in the face of adversity
By James V. Dowd / Daily Staff Writer

more dormitories and votes for anti-
student measures like residential park-
ing permit programs. Students grow
even more annoyed at the whole situa-
tion and the city of Ann Arbor.
How can the rampant rents be
reined? Sensible urban planning
enabled by students' political par-
ticipation. In simple economic terms,
there is not enough housing for the
demand. Students generally want to
live near campus, which more or less
means low-rise apartment buildings,
houses, or converted apartment hous-
es. The University is expanding almost
without pause, meaning more housing
consumers for a more or less finite
number of units (keep in mind that the
population of the city as
a whole is slowly grow-
ing, too). If the housing
market were function- Sens
ing normally, real estate stu
developers would be
building new units to
satisfy that demand. Ann
Arbor, however, is not Gradua
a normally functioning
market. Developers who
want to build new units in
a number of price ranges are stymied
and smacked down by preservationists
and neighborhood associations. Even
when they put together a proposal that
makes economic sense, satisfies Ann
Arbor's values on affordable housing
and combines retail with commercial
and residential uses, people who are
afraid of tall buildings flex their politi-
cal muscle and drive off proposals
that would increase the city's housing
supply. Next time you're at Angelo's
Restaurant, take a look at the defunct
gas station on Glen Street. Thanks to
the Historic District Commission, that
will remain an eyesore rather than a
mixed-use ten-story building for the
foreseeable future.
The city has to continue to develop
new housing units, not just for stu-
dents but as part of a broad effort to
provide housing to the poor, the work-
ing class, students, young profession-
als, baby boomers and empty nesters.
Market studies show people want to
live downtown, people want to live
in more affordable units, and people
want to live in areas of higher den-
sity with a vibrant local economy and
active street life. Main Street doesn't
have to be deserted Sunday through
Thursday after 10 p.m. Given some
simple urban design guidelines, new
construction can satisfy demand for
living downtown without sacrific-
ing the streetscape many people love
about downtown Ann Arbor.
In addition to developing new units
downtown and near campus, the city
can start developing satellite busi-
ness and residential districts. Almost
any other city of Ann Arbor's size
or larger has more than one node of
activity. Because Tree Town had
little industry in the 20th century,
and in fact, only had a population of
about 30,000 in 1930, we lack the real
estate and neighborhood distribution
of other cities. If we were to build
some mixed-use neighborhoods at a
distance from the downtown area, we
could offer more than one option for
those who want to live in an "urban"
area. People should have more than
just one choice of where to live if they-
want to be within walking distance of

a grocery store or a coffee shop and
bookstore. In addition to increas-
ing desirable housing supply, having
these options will also relieve some of
the pressure on the campus-downtown
area, particularly if it is served by bus
(or is near the potential Detroit-Ann'
Arbor rail line). Just think - if you1
could live 3 miles from campus, pay1
$300 a bedroom, still be able to walkJ
to restaurants, bars and clothing stores]
and could get to campus in eight min-1
utes on an express bus, you'd jump at
the chance, wouldn't you? There's no
good reason that you can't now - the;
city's archaic development process
and the opposition of neighborhood;
groups have been the main obstacles,1
can the rampant rents be
ible urban planning enab
dents' political participat
te Student, Architecture and Urba
though outdated concepts of a car-lov-
ing public still persist (even though
Ann Arbor's reputation for walking
and biking are clearly well deserved).
I've mostly been talking about pri-
vate market solutions to the student
housing problem, but public and non-
profit institutions have a role to play,
too. First, let me clear up the miscon-
ception that the University is at fault
because they haven't built any dorms
in 30 years. The University of Michi-
gan is an educational institution, not
a residential one. The University has
no obligation to provide housing for
its students, except as it feels is nec-
essary to support the educational mis-
sion of the University. If that means
living-learning communities, faculty
housing developments, or demonstra-
tion projects, that's fine. However,
just because the University is bring-
ing people to Ann Arbor doesn't mean
it has to house them. No one expects
Pfizer, Arbortext or the city govern-
ment to house its employees, though
many of them came to Ann Arbor
specifically for employment; neither
should we expect that of the Univer-

sity for their students.
The lion's share of on-campus stu-
dent housing was built in a brief 30
year period, from the 1930s to the
1960s, with substantial aid from the
federal government. East Quad and
West Quad Residence. Halls were
built with Works Progress Adminis-
tration grants during the Depression;
Markley, Bursley, the Baitses and the
Northwoods residences were financed
by the federal government after World
War II in a lending program enabling
colleges to house the influx of veter-
ans and the baby boomers. Ironically,
college presidents 1 egged the federal
government for this program because
the private market, which had the tra-
ditional responsibil-
reined? ity to build housing
reined? couldn't deal with all
led by the veterans coming ". w
ion. to college on the GI
Bill, followed by the
boomers in later years.
ale Winling Now people think that
in Planning everyone should live
in a dorm because they
did when they were in
college, even though University Towers is a high-rise apar
158 years of university history indi- versity Avenue.
cates the trend has almost always been
in the opposite direction.
Groups like cooperatives and non-
profit developers can also help drive
this process. Co-ops started at the Uni-
versity in the Depression to help ease
the burden of housing costs; that mis-
sion is just as relevant now and they,
too, should be building new units in
Ann Arbor. Non-profits, because they
can qualify for subsidies and have less
of a tax burden and profit motive than
for-profit developers, can afford to be
more creative in their financing, their
designs and their planning. Private
builders shouldn't have a monopoly
on development.
None of these ideas are revolution-
ary - almost any other sizeable city
you travel to will already exhibit these
characteristics. However, Ann Arbor
has been a small, parochial town for
some time now and many people don't
see a need to change. Students have to
get as involved in local politics as they
do in state and national issues if there's
going to be any noticeable change. You Business senior John David Carson
can bet the rent check on that. light bulb in his house on Church St

t's easy to look at the automotive
industry, especially in Michigan,
.. and cringe. Foreign automakers
are slowly surpassing the Big Three,
suppliers are going bankrupt and jobs
are disappearing into thin air almost
daily. Michigan's pride and joy has
entered a downward spiral with no
end in sight. But a beacon of hope has
appeared in the most unlikely of places
- a small part of Ypsilanti known as
Willow Run.
Willow Run is home to the Gen-
eral Motors Powertrain plant, where
the automaker produces transmissions
for many of its production vehicles. In
recent years, the addition of a new six-
speed transmission has helped save the
Willow Run plant. As factories else-
where are continuing to downsize or
close completely, the Powertrain plant
has kept its head above water, preserv-
ing one of Michigan's historical land-
A flying start
A glance at the history of the General
Motors Powertrain plant helps illustrate
the significance of the Willow Run
As the United States entered into
World War II, there was an increasing
need for factories that could construct

The plant is five million square feet
and one mile long from front to.back.

- Kingsley Wootton
Willow Run Plant Manager

various war machines, especially air-
craft. Assembly-line pioneer Henry Ford
- knowing that he had the mechanical
expertise and a tract of land near Ann
Arbor - sold his farm to the govern-
ment so that his Ford Motor Company
could construct a B-24 bomber - more
commonly know as the "Liberator".
During the next five years, Ford man-
ufactured some 8,000 of these planes,
which were dispatched to the Euro-
pean theater and played a key role in
the defeat of the Axis powers. But once
victory was complete, Ford no longer
needed the plant in Willow Run and
began looking to sell the massive estab-
While the automotive industry in
Detroit was budding, Willow Run
seemed out of the way in the 1940s.
Remodeling into an auto plant would be
a very involved project.
"The plant is five million square feet
and one mile long from front to back,"
said current plant manager Kingsley

Wootton. "And the floor is sloped one-
half degree so that the bombers could
be easily pushed down the facility. This
area is as long as 110 football fields."
Willow Run was purchased by auto-
motive moguls Henry Kaiser and Joseph
Frazer at the end of the war. Kaiser's
company built their cars there until
1953 when they moved their operation
to Ohio after a merger. The plant might
have been empty once more, but cir-
cumstance brought the beginning of the
General Motors era at the plant.
"In 1953, Detroit Transmission pro-
duced transmissions for GM," Wootton
said. "Their plant in Livonia burned
down and they transferred production
from Livonia to Willow Run."
Since Detroit $ Transmission moved
out to Willow Run, the General Motors
operation flourished. But the sentimen-
tal value of a building with such a long
history is not enough to keep it running.
When many General Motors plants were
closing and downsizing in the early part

of this decade, a new product allowed
the Willow Run plant to maintain its
New product,
same results
While many people know General
Motors' final products, few know much
about their components. At Willow
Run, General Motors produces a wide
range of transmissions.
"There are multiple plants within one
site," Wootton said. "We have the Wil-
low Run transmission operation that
produces a rear-wheel drive heavy duty
transmission and a front-wheel drive
heavy duty transmission. There is also
a component site that produces compo-
nents for other GM transmissions that
are produced at other sites."
But as General Motors' stock plum-
meted in recent years, demand for the
automakers' vehicles also fell. This
might have spelled doom for the Wil-
low Run plant, but the plant's;efficiency
caught the eye of General Motors' deci-
sion makers, and the operation was
awarded a new product.
"About two years ago, we were
awarded the new six-speed, rear-wheel
drive transmission," Wootton said.
"This was awarded based on performance
See WILLOW RUN, page 12B

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