parking-lot-300x200When reading the latest news about smart city technology and future trends, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. So many guesses, predictions and reports to sift through – is it all just noise?Sure, most of it likely is. But as Michigan’s own Nate Silver reminds us, there are sometimes signals buried in the noise. For me, a recent piece of news rang out like piercing siren: former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick is investing $150 million in a real estate company and taking over as its CEO. Now, Kalanick’s name elicits all sorts of emotional reactions, for good reason. But set those aside for the moment and examine this, on its face unremarkable, business headline more closely. Where does Kalanick’s new company primarily focus? “Distressed real estate assets like parking lots or abandoned strip malls.” Assets that, in Kalanick’s words, “…will need to be repurposed for the digital era in the coming years.”

Kalanick made billions seeing the future of transportation, at least a piece of it. His former company’s name is now a verb. Now he’s placing a significant bet on the changes that are coming to our communities, partly as a result of his former company. Much of the land of cities is tied up in single-use commercial development (much of it low-quality) and parking lots/structures. Some combination of online retail, convenient delivery, ride-sharing and autonomous vehicles are threatening to render those two uses obsolete.

You’ll hear many who have an interest in the status quo dismiss these future scenarios as unlikely or too distant to worry about. This piece of news said to me that Kalanick thinks otherwise. Community leaders should heed this signal and start to consider what happens if large chunks of the land in their downtowns and commercial districts become available. Because when real estate changes happen, they tend to happen in waves.

Last week, I had the privilege to present to the Illinois Rural Community Economic Development Conference, a statewide event bringing together community leaders and representatives of state and federal government and academia. They invited me to share Michigan’s lessons from our decade-plus of focus on place-based redevelopment.

I met an enthusiastic group of advocates, representing communities like Strasburg, Macomb and Canton, as well as folks from bigger cities like Springfield and Peoria. They are tackling many of the same problems League members are: lack of resources and capacity, a rapidly changing retail and real estate market, talent attraction and retention.

It was rewarding to see the commonalities, of course, but the overwhelming feeling I had was one of pride in what we have collectively done in Michigan. Programs like PlacePlans, Public Spaces, Community Places and Redevelopment Ready Communities are world-class models that our peers in Illinois, and many other states, envy. For that we can be proud of not just the leadership of the League and its members, but also of our friends on the Sense of Place Council and our partners in state government, consulting firms, non-profit organizations and philanthropies. It may sometimes feel that we have miles to go – and we do – but it’s worth stopping and remembering how far we’ve come.

We kicked off 2018 by putting the finishing touches on three guidance documents in partnership with MEDC’s Redevelopment Ready Communities (RRC) program. The Redevelopment Ready Sites Guide, Developer RFQ Guide and Developer RFQ template were written for communities pursuing RRC certification, but are relevant for any communities looking to attract productive new investment. They are the product of over a year of research and development supported by MEDC, MSHDA, CIB Planning, LSL Planning and SmithJJR. We’re very proud to finally share this information with all of our League members!

Topics covered include: how to select ripe redevelopment sites, how to prioritize investment when choosing among many properties, how to engage the community and develop a vision for redevelopment, resources available to support and incent redevelopment and how to attract developer interest through the RFQ process.

Throughout 2017, the League’s Review magazine featured updates on the successes, failures and lessons learned from the 20+ local community engagement and redevelopment initiatives facilitated by League staff, Michigan State University faculty and expert consultants as part of the PlacePlans pilot program. PlacePlans was sponsored by MSHDA, MSU and the MML Foundation. It helped catalyze dramatic downtown transformations in cities like Jackson and Cadillac, creative redevelopments like Kalamazoo’s Fare Games competition and innovative approaches to civic engagement in Traverse City.

Now, we’ve collected all of these “Where Are They Now?” articles and posted them on the PlacePlans program page (as well as the links in the previous paragraph). In addition, you can review a summary of a study Wayne State University performed measuring the effectiveness of the program and its most important components.

Thanks go to our guest authors and contributors who helped with this article series throughout 2017: John Wallace and Marcus Peccia with the City of Cadillac, Patrick Burtch with the City of Jackson, Kathy Jennings from Second Wave, Kelly Clarke with the Kalamazoo County Land Bank and Nathan Elkins from Influence Design Forum.