Nate-handing-out-money-200x230“Money” and conversation were flowing at Farmington Hills City Hall as residents of both Farmington and Farmington Hills gathered for the unveiling of the preliminary design plans for the 10 Mile/Orchard Lake intersection.

As they walked in the door, Nate Geinzer, assistant to the city manager, handed everyone $1,000 in play money and asked them to “invest” it in the placemaking features that are most important to them in this process. Their choices ranged from events and activities, communications, and streetscape to pedestrian/bike facilities and public space. At the end of the evening, the money was counted and the interesting results are shown in the graph below.

Viewing-plans-300x200At the March visioning workshop, residents and businesses had an opportunity to share their ideas for reimagining the 10 Mile/Orchard Lake intersection. Following that session, the urban design team from Lawrence Technological University – Professor Kim Joongsub and student Dustin Altschul – reviewed all the ideas and converted them into a design proposal. Several copies of the design, along with the draft report, were on display for everyone to view and comment on.

Altschul describes the design, which was available for view and comment, as aligning with the communities’ ideals of making walkability and biking more pleasurable, strengthening community connections with a public gathering space, and adding environmentally-conscious elements.

investing-chart-300x274Download Area Plan
Download Concept Design
Download Phasing Plan
Download Project Timeline

 

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Dwight Pete Mitchell with his wife, Margo

It was easy to see how Benton Harbor’s Dwight Pete Mitchell City Center Park got its moniker. When its namesake was introduced at the park’s June 16 design workshop, thunderous applause broke out! Clearly, he was a very popular city manager during his 2002-2008 tenure.

Mitchell was part of a large crowd that gathered at Benton Harbor Public Library to get their first glimpse of Michigan State University’s preliminary design plans for the park. After gathering feedback from the community at a visioning workshop in April, professors Warren Rauhe and Wayne Beyea returned with two alternatives. Rauhe referred to the first plan as a “people’s park”, featuring a multi-purpose stage, concession stand, farmers market and an urban wetland area. He characterized the second plan as a “traditional park with a bold architectural attitude.” That plan includes an events lawn, central fountain, shaded space, and a “sail-covered” promenade.

Group-viewing-design-plans-300x200After a brief presentation from Rauhe, the crowd was let loose to wander around for the main event of the evening – gathering feedback. With sticky notes and pens in hand, they wrote comments on what they loved and didn’t love and posted them right on the drawings. Now, Rauhe, Beyea and their student teams will go back to the drawing board and assimilate all that feedback into a new round of renderings. In August, Benton Harbor residents will have a chance to review the new drawings as the plan for the park gets closer and closer to meeting the needs and desires of the community.

 

 

Cars are king in most Michigan suburbs. We have designed our suburbs for efficiency of process, where uses are separated and car-oriented, said Ellen Dunham-Jones, co-author of Retrofitting Suburbia, at the League’s Suburban Summits in May. But in recent years, suburbs have been hit with a double-punch from the struggling economy and changing demographics, leaving them with empty buildings and properties in need of a new life.

That’s a game-changer, says Dunham-Jones, making efficiency of place the watchword of the day as we consider how to redevelop our suburbs. The efficiency of more compact, urban development can provide cities with lower infrastructure costs and higher tax revenue per acre. At the same time, it offers millennials and baby boomers the walkable, urban lifestyle they crave.

As suburbs consider how to retrofit underutilized properties, Dunham-Jones emphasizes first knowing why the site died. That will help determine which of the following design strategies is the most appropriate, although many older retrofits have some degree of all three strategies:

  • Reinhabit – use the building for a more community-service purpose
  • Redevelop – build a more dense, urban, walkable place
  • Regreen – turn the site into a park or open space

For more details on these three strategies, please read an earlier blog, “Creating a Purposeful New Life for Old Suburban Sites”.

21st Century Challenges

Retrofitting can also help suburbs address a variety of 21st century challenges – everything from auto-dependence and jobs to an aging population and environmental issues.

Auto-dependence
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Many of today’s consumers would like to ditch their cars and walk or take transit to a variety of places – a pretty big challenge in our auto-oriented suburbs. At Mashpee Commons in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, developers addressed that problem by building a quaint New England village on the parking lot of an old strip center. The new development boasts first floor shops with apartments above, as well as civic space.

Public Health
The sedentary lifestyle of the suburbs has contributed to an epidemic of chronic diseases, such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Human sprawl and suburban sprawl correlate, says Dunham-Jones. People in urban areas tend to lead more active lifestyles, so she advises introducing more physical activity and walkability and making streets safer. One example she offered is the dying One Hundred Oaks Mall in Nashville, Tennessee. Vanderbilt University took over the second floor of the mall for a medical center. The center is getting better patient results as people love the convenient location and the chance to shop while waiting for their appointment.

Social Capital
Suburban social life used to revolve around schools, but with a rising number of childless households, people are seeking new “third” places when they can build community. A group in Oak Cliff, Texas came up with a creative solution to that challenge along a boarded-up block of businesses.  For two days, the Build a Better Block group transformed the block with art in the store windows, street trees, food trucks and more. Two small ordinance changes from the city enabled some of these changes to become permanent.

Equity and Affordability
Transportation costs are higher in the suburbs, particularly for people in the lower half of the income bracket. They often spend more on transportation than housing, so affordable housing near affordable transportation is essential. At Cottages on Greene Street in Rhode Island, the answer to affordable housing came in the form of dense, quaint cottages that seamlessly transition into the surrounding commercial area.

Jobs
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Attracting and retaining millennial workers is tricky as most of them have no interest in the “Dilbert-style” cubicles typically available in suburban office parks, says Dunham-Jones.  Denver, Colorado has the right idea with their TAXI development, a former taxi garage that now houses cool, loft-style office space and even a swimming pool made from shipping containers.

Energy
As energy costs escalate, energy conservation becomes a bigger concern. At the Mueller development in Austin, Texas, a former airport is being developed into an urban community where all the houses are on a smart grid and use solar power.

Water
Water can be a challenge on several fronts – your community may have too much, too little, or the quality has been compromised. At Northgate Urban Center in North Seattle, Washington, the mayor was able to improve water quality by negotiating a deal that enabled daylighting a creek that had been routed through a pipe. The creek is now an amenity for the new condos and senior housing that surrounds it.

As with the three design strategies for retrofitting suburbs, we need layered solutions to deal with all the 21st century challenges as well, says Dunham-Jones. We need to change the metrics of success.

 

Budapest-300x200Just because something is old doesn’t make it obsolete. Take the ancient city of Budapest. It has stood the test of time because it embodies people-oriented characteristics. They are reflected in the city’s walkability and connectivity, the human-scale of its buildings and streets, and the broad mix of uses available to residents.

Those very traits are more relevant now than they’ve been in the last 20 years, said Mark Nickita, president of Archive DS, at the League’s Suburban Summits in May. They are part of the urban lifestyle that baby boomers and millennials – the drivers of development – are seeking. Nickita pointed out that communities like Ann Arbor that offer that vibrant, dense, pedestrian-oriented environment weathered the recession far better than most Michigan cities. Suburbs that strive to create a similar sense of place and make walkability a priority are positioning themselves for success.

Revenue Opportunities
Creating a sense of place can result in significant economic benefits to the community. Nickita suggests taking a serious look at available land and buildings and rethinking alternative uses that can enhance the bottom line.

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Kroger – downtown Birmingham

He shared the examples of a vacant Kmart shopping center in Troy – the same land area as downtown Northville – and the old Livonia Mall – the same size as downtown Plymouth. Redeveloping these sites as dense, mixed-use, walkable properties can bring in much higher tax revenue. For example, a Kroger shopping center in the suburbs typically pays annual property taxes of about $16,000 per acre. A Kroger store built in a much denser, walkable area such as downtown Birmingham brings in almost four times as much – about $62,000 per acre.

Reuse Opportunities
Infusing your community with a vibrant sense of place also presents opportunities to reuse buildings and properties through creative zoning and visioning. Nickita suggests taking areas that the city controls and making the best of them with forward-thinking design that includes things like walkability, bike access, and the needs of seniors.

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The Rail District – Birmingham

He cited the example of The Rail District in Birmingham, a set of old industrial buildings with a lot of vacancies. The city transformed the area into a mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented district. By loosening up their zoning policies and creating a visionary plan, the city now has a cool, connected area with unique uses they never would have thought of, such as interior design studios, Robot Garage and a swimming school for babies.

Another example is the Stiles District in Rochester Hills. The site housed an old two-story school building that sat vacant for years. A developer is now repurposing the school and creating a mixed-use space that residents can walk to and enjoy.

City Flexibility
Nickita advises that the key to creative property re-use is flexibility in zoning codes. It’s impossible to conceive of all the possible uses that developers might present. But if the city is open to considering new and innovative proposed uses, they’re on the right track to creating an exciting sense of place that encourages even more development.