Dead regional malls, huge vacancies in strip malls, and empty office buildings have been accumulating in American suburbs in recent years. Much of this change can be attributed to suburban demographic shifts. Particularly since 2000, many babyboomers are now empty-nesters, Gen X is a smaller generation that doesn’t quite fill the void, and the majority of millennials are more interested in an urban lifestyle.

Applying-Retrofitting-Suburbia-6-300x200At MLGMA’s recent Winter Institute in Novi, keynote speaker Ellen Dunham-Jones, co-author of “Retrofitting Suburbia,” said you can look at all these underperforming properties and be depressed, or view them as opportunities for a different future. She chooses the latter. And she has over 1,200 examples of retrofits to show just how it can be done.

Dunham-Jones’ approach to creating a new life for old suburban sites involves three basic strategies:

  1. Redevelop
  2. Reinhabit
  3. Regreen

When the real estate market is hot, she suggests that redevelopment of the property is often the best option. She cites the example of the dying Belmar Mall in Lakewood, Colorado. A developer wasn’t interested in reviving the mall, but rather wanted to build a downtown area in its place, with a variety of shops and restaurants. Belmar is now 22 blocks of walkable urbanism, and it’s already generating more tax revenue than the mall was at its peak.


Belmar, Lakewood, Colorado

At the other end of the spectrum, when the real estate market is stagnant, reinhabiting a vacant site with a more community-serving use can be the way to go. For example, in Cleveland, Ohio, a Big Lots store had sat empty for years with no interested buyers. The city saw the opportunity to fill a need for area youth. The site has now been converted into the Collinwood Recreation Center, with a completely remodeled interior and a parking lot that has been transformed into sports fields.

The third option is regreening a site by creating a park or open space. That was the ideal solution for a dying mall in Columbus, Ohio. The mall was demolished and a park was built in its place. The park is now a popular gathering place and new housing is sprouting up along its perimeters. Regreening the mall has stimulated more development in the whole area.

Applying Retrofitting Suburbia

Following Dunham-Jones’ keynote presentation, attendees had the opportunity to participate in the “Applying Retrofitting Suburbia” session. Five communities presented case studies of challenging sites, and attendees divided into groups to generate ideas for one of those sites.

Battle Creek has a 54-acre site in a regional shopping area adjacent to I-94 in need of more connectivity to the surrounding area. Three Rivers has an old 26,000 square-foot hospital near a river and park that has sat vacant for a long time. Troy has a 48-acre site that contains the old K-Mart world headquarters that has been unused for many years. Plainfield Township has a 5-lane trunkline with shallow lots and multiple curb cuts that make development difficult. And Durand has an old vacant warehouse facility with offices that has been inactive for over 20 years.

Applying-Retrofitting-Suburbia-7-300x200I joined the group that was mulling over the Durand site. We learned that the site is very close to downtown as well as the city’s beautiful, active, historic train station. We also discovered that the city doesn’t have a central gathering space for community events, and the number of young residents is relatively small. After considering the sites’ strengths and weaknesses, our group proposed an approach that involved reinhabiting and regreening:

  • Convert the warehouse into a farmers market with an outdoor stage for concerts
  • Create a park on the site between the farmers market and the train station
  • Demolish the fire-damaged office buildings and replace with a parking lot
  • Demolish the few run-down houses across the street and use that property to create paths connecting the farmers market site to downtown

For more on Ellen Dunham-Jones’ presentation at the MLGMA Winter Institute, please visit MLGMA’s website.


Adelaide-food-festival-bannerAt MLGMA’s Winter Institute in January, keynote speaker Peter Smith energetically and enthusiastically shared his experiences of using placemaking to transform the city of Adelaide, South Australia from ho-hum to a world-class destination.

About five years ago, Smith, CEO of Adelaide City Council, began rethinking the role of government and realized that there was great value in governments operating on a regular basis somewhat like they do in the event of a disaster. He cited the example of the 2011 earthquake that severely damaged Christchurch, New Zealand’s second largest city. Many policies and procedures were ignored in favor of quick decision-making, and community groups arose to fill in the void with creativity and innovation.

That’s the mindset that Smith brought to revitalizing the city of Adelaide. When he assumed the role of CEO of City Council in 2008, many industries were closing, young people were leaving, and the city was seen as boring and not welcoming to business. A city-wide “Picture Adelaide” project solicited feedback from residents and revealed that the council wasn’t viewed as trustworthy and the approval process for projects took far too long. Beyond that, 70 percent of the 4,000 ideas submitted were about improving public spaces. Those are the places that color people’s experience with their city and keep them attached and interested far more than infrastructure improvements.

Splash-Adelaide-2Based on the residents’ feedback – and using the lighter, quicker, cheaper approach to government – Splash Adelaide was born.  The first year, the city budgeted $150,000 for community-led public space projects and eventually got 30 projects off the ground – everything from street markets and skating events to library on the lawn. The projects were so popular with both the community and the council that in the following years, there were 70 and then 100 community-run activations. Last year, there were an impressive 150 projects and 4,000 Splash Adelaide followers on social media

And Splash Adelaide is being noticed and copied all over the world. In 2013, Adelaide was voted as one of Lonely Planet’s top 5 places to visit. In 2013 and 2014, The Economist ranked Adelaide as one of the top 10 livable cities. And perhaps more importantly, young people are recommending Adelaide for its new “vibe” and the majority of the city staff now understand placemaking and what it can accomplish for their city.

For more on Peter Smith’s presentation at the MLGMA Winter Institute, please visit MLGMA’s website.

Allegan and Cadillac were among the five cities that recently received Core Communities grants for public infrastructure and site improvements from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. The Core Communities fund is designed to spur private development in urban communities and traditional centers of commerce. Funds can be used for such things as land and property acquisition, site development, and infrastructure improvements.

allegan-placeplanBoth cities will use the funds to implement some of the projects proposed in their PlacePlans. Allegan’s Downtown Riverfront Development plan called for redeveloping the Kalamazoo riverfront that borders downtown into an inviting space for festivals, events, and recreation that would also jumpstart economic development. The city plans to use its $250,000 Core Communities grant to redevelop an underutilized parking area into an 11,600 square foot events plaza connecting the community’s central business district with the Kalamazoo River. The space will include an elevated stage for musical performances, shows and outdoor movies, and a multi-use space for events and festivals.

Cadillac-PlacePlan-300x200In Cadillac, the Heritage Plaza PlacePlan presented a redesign of a lakeside block in the downtown area., which is currently a parking lot and City Park. The plan envisions the site as a year-round destination and hub of downtown, hosting seasonal events and providing an attractive connection between the Mitchell Street businesses and Lake Cadillac. The city plans to use its $200,000 Core Communities grant to redevelop the two acre downtown parking facility into an inviting space for community festivals and events. The site will also make it easy for residents and visitors enjoying the lake to frequent downtown businesses.




cadillac-placeplan-coverAll year, the League and its partners – Michigan State University and Michigan State Housing Development Authority – have been working with community leaders and residents in eight cities throughout Michigan. The goal was to help communities design and implement transformative placemaking projects that focus economic development efforts around walkable downtown districts.

The result is creative PlacePlans that are uniquely customized for each community. Cadillac’s “Heritage Plaza” concept envisions the site as a year-round destination and hub of downtown. Southwest Detroit’s “Connecting Communities with Vernor Crossing” PlacePlan redesigns a vacant brownfield site as a flexible public plaza, retail center and shared market space for local entrepreneurs. Flint’s Grand Traverse Greenway PlacePlan provides unique designs for intersections, community connections and amenities for this 3.4 mile bike/walk trail. Creating a “food innovation district” in the Western Gateway area was the recommendation of Holland’s PlacePlan.

The “Downtown Jackson Alleyway” can become an inviting part of the city with PlacePlan design elements that enliven and link together destinations along the alley. Kalamazoo Valley Community College’s new healthy living campus and surrounding area can benefit from the Kalamazoo PlacePlan’s recommendations for a sustainable transportation plan. Marquette’s “Reimagining Baraga Avenue” PlacePlan is full of ideas to improve the connectivity and appearance of this section of downtown. And iIn Midland’s PlacePlan, learn about the strategic opportunities for the city’s popular farmers market as a functional market, community gathering space, and catalyst for economic development in downtown.

To read the full reports for all the 2014 PlacePlans, visit the PlacePlans page.