About Richard Murphy

Richard Murphy is a program coordinator with the League's Civic Innovation Labs team. Find him on twitter @murphmonkey or email rmurphy@mml.org.

Down the street from the League’s Ann Arbor offices is this row of oak trees, 20 years old or so. They line the vacant lot, about a five-acre grassy space, at the edge of an office park.

I do not like these trees.

The offending trees.

The offending trees.

It’s nothing personal—they are very nice trees, and have done nothing wrong—but they bother me every time I walk past them because they were planted in the wrong place.

Most likely, when the first phases of the office park were developed, the city’s zoning ordinance required that these trees be planted around the edge of the site as a “green buffer” for the development, a common standard based on the theory that development is ugly and passerby need to be protected from it by a moat of plants. As in this case, these well-intended requirements can be counter-productive: by looking narrowly at the site, the development standards misuse good trees as mere damage control, when they could have been the seeds of a great place.

Those trees could be doing so much better than to dress up the edges of these parking lots.

Our trees could be used for so much better than merely dressing up the edges of these parking lots.

Imagine if they had been planted as street trees, between the sidewalk and the curb, instead of ten feet behind the curb.  At this point, they’d be shading a good portion of the pavement, and in another few decades might reach over the centerline—perhaps meeting trees planted on the other side of the street. This wide-open suburban byway, where drivers regularly drive 10 over the speed limit, would feel much more like a city street, with all of the safety, cooling, stormwater, and health benefits that properly placed street trees provide.

Next there’s the impact the trees have on the future development of that parcel. This site is a short bus ride from downtown Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan’s campus and medical center, plus has two supermarkets, a drugstore, coffee shop, and several restaurants clustered around the nearby intersection at Plymouth Road. If the trees were in their proper location as street trees, we could easily imagine a neighborhood of townhomes at this location, opening the fierce Ann Arbor housing market to 100 or so more households. With front stoops near the sidewalk, parking limited and accessed from alleys in the rear, such a neighborhood would continue transforming the area.

But where the trees are now, 10 feet behind the sidewalk, they push any future development of the site back away from the street, encouraging a continuation of the car-centric suburban pattern.  We only have to look at the site next door to see what kind of development these trees support: stormwater basin, parking lot, standalone office building, more parking lot.

Streets reflect the use of the land around them. The road sees traffic levels of 3,900 vehicles / day, in SEMCOG’s most recent counts. As a general rule of thumb, a street can carry about 10,000 vehicles a day with a single lane in each direction. The three-lane layout of this road is wildly overbuilt, especially considering how few places there are to make a left turn: it only makes sense because there’s nothing better to do with the width.

Low traffic volume and few intersections means the left turn lane isn't even considered worth plowing--which creates a hazard for pedestrians at crosswalks.

Low traffic volume and few intersections means the left turn lane isn’t even considered worth plowing–which creates a hazard for pedestrians at crosswalks.

In our scenario of street trees and townhomes, though, Green Road cries out to be a better street—to put that space to better use. Let’s eliminate that completely unnecessary left turn lane, then put a row of on-street parking along the front of our townhomes on the east side of the street. Bike lanes along parking lanes are dangerous, so let’s use the remaining width for a two-way protected cycle track on the west side of the street, creating a safer connection between the neighborhoods to the south, the commercial amenities at Plymouth Road to the north, and the campus access points to the west.

This street in Muskegon shows how a street with the same width of pavement can have an entirely different feel when that width is allocated differently and the adjacent land use is oriented at people over cars.

This street in Muskegon shows how a street with the same width of pavement can have an entirely different feel when that width is allocated differently and the adjacent land use is oriented at people over cars.

We could continue rippling outwards to see how these changes support even more momentum towards creating great human habitat, rather than moving cars at unnecessary speeds, but you get the point: the trees are in the wrong place.

(Spoiler alert: later this year we’ll be rolling out the second Michigan-specific “Enabling Better Places” guide as part of the Project for Code Reform. This guide will focus on incremental tactics for updating local zoning codes to enable, not necessarily guarantee, development that supports great places in suburban corridors.  As a hater of trees-in-wrong-places, I’m pleased to note the draft has “eliminate buffer requirements” on page 29.)

(This piece originally appeared in the Jan/Feb 2020 issue of The Review magazine.)

Created by the federal Tax Cut and Jobs Act at the end of 2017, Opportunity Zones have all the features of a gold rush: things are moving very quickly, everybody is excited, and nobody actually knows if there really is gold in them there hills.

The best-case scenario that Opportunity Zones have promised is a mechanism to bring investment into neglected low-income neighborhoods, supporting local services and business development. Because the incentive has no approval step, oversight, or even transparency for local or state governments, though, there’s high potential for abuse: it could end up being yet another way that predatory capital investors extract value from communities already suffering from deindustrialization, racial discrimination, or both. Somewhere in between is the possibility that OZs have no significant impact, that there’s very little fire under all this smoke.

The challenge facing communities is how to steer Opportunity Fund investors towards projects with true local benefit and put guardrails in place to prevent the worst—all without being able to see what, if anything, is happening with the incentive.

First, where are these zones?

The Snyder administration had to designate a certain number of census tracts as OZs within the first three months after federal establishing legislation was passed, with very little information about the incentive or opportunity for on-the-ground input. A map of Michigan’s zones is at https://miopportunityzones.com/ and there is currently no way to add, delete, or edit zones from that map.

This means some municipalities and neighborhoods could see OZ investment (and have no way to opt out), and others never will. Many of the strategies emerging for communities to benefit from OZs do have application in other places—just without the incentive’s boost to investor return.

Map of southwest Michigan showing designated opportunity zones

OZs were designated in both urban and rural areas around the state; check https://miopportunityzones.com/ for specific locations.

If you’ve got a zone—what does that mean?

Opportunity Zones are a federal tax shelter that allows investors to avoid taxes on capital gains by investing those profits in business or real estate development in designated low- and moderate-income communities for multiple years. The greatest benefit for investors comes after 7 to 10 years of investment, and the incentive was only authorized through the end of 2026, creating pressure for investors to move quickly and secure long-term investments. As a federal tax incentive, the only reporting required is between the Opportunity Fund investor and the IRS—local government and states do not have any formal role in the process, and may never even know which projects the incentive is being used for.

Chart showing compounding increase in tax benefit of OZ investment over time.

OZs incentivize holding investments for longer-terms over rapid flipping. Longer-term investing can help host communities, but also has led to a surge of up-front interest in this time-limited incentive. (Image from Governance Project, at 2019 Convention)

While most OZ investment activity so far appears to be in real estate development, the incentive targets capital investors, not developers directly. This is a point of difference from financing that targets particular development priorities, like MEDC’s Community Revitalization Program (CRP) or MSHDA’s Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) allocations.

The newness of the incentive (and the suddenness with which it was created), the shotclock for investments, and the very large amount of capital that could theoretically be invested have created a lot of buzz and attention.  There are several challenges this poses for municipalities, though each challenge can be addressed.

Who is going to be investing?

The OZ incentive does not apply to all investment, only to investments of capital gains within a short period of time after these gains are realized. An investor in an Opportunity Fund has to not just have a large enough capital gain to make the marginal tax benefit significant, but must be able to afford tying up those funds for as much as a decade. Most OZ investment is therefore expected to come from large-scale investors such as private equity funds, institutional pension or endowment funds, or extremely high net worth individuals—investors who tend to be looking into a community from the outside, to have little connection or familiarity with the local context, and to be concerned only with financial return.

Some local investors will have capital gains to use, however, and the OZ incentive could bring impact investing within reach for these investors. By moving a Main Street investment from negative return to merely below-market return, a combination of OZs and the emotional appeal of investing where they live may get some locals to bring some money home from distant and anonymous investments.  Providing local attorneys and accountants, or the local community foundation, information on the OZ incentive and potential local investments is one way to reach these stakeholders.

Make the best projects easiest

While municipalities have no direct role in approving Opportunity Fund investments, they can use the tools they have available for directing any investment: local incentive policies, zoning ordinances, and capital improvements plans should provide clear and easy paths for developers and investors to do the projects the community wants to happen. A combination of guardrails against harmful projects and incentives or promises of quick approval for beneficial ones can do a lot to steer investment.

This applies whether the project is financed through an Opportunity Fund or not—developers prefer easy projects over hard projects, so communities can use their tools to make the good projects easy. (At our September Convention session on OZs, Jill Ferrari from development firm Renovare put it bluntly: “If you’re not in the Redevelopment Ready program, we’re not even going to look at a project in your community.”)

…and make them easy to find

Another emerging best practice for Opportunity Zones is that communities should proactively market the projects they want to happen. This has multiple purposes. Any municipality engaged in the Redevelopment Ready program will recognize the first: putting your community on the map for investors who probably aren’t going to find their way to you on their own. The second is to keep those investors’ attention on the projects that will provide the most benefit to the host neighborhood, rather than waiting to react to potentially detrimental projects. Finally, holding the local conversations necessary to identify, prioritize, and communicate those beneficial investment opportunities may trigger the interest of local investors who had previously overlooked opportunities right in their backyard.

One model for this marketing is the OZ Investment Prospectus popularized by Accelerator for America (https://www.acceleratorforamerica.com/tools). These documents combine community-wide economic and quality of life data, usually sourced from county or regional economic development organizations; walkthroughs of the district- or neighborhood-scale character and goals for each local Opportunity Zone; and descriptions of individual property or business investment opportunities within those zones.

In short, Opportunity Zones could be a beneficial catalyst to designated neighborhoods, but could also be an example of what Jane Jacobs called “cataclysmic money,” a large outside force that acts despite communities’ interests rather than for them. The best defense may be a good offense in this case: getting out in front of the investors and leading them to the projects that will actually add to our distressed neighborhoods and municipalities.

MSHDA has recently issued a call for proposals to their Neighborhood Enhancement Program, with local applications due December 1.  Municipalities and 501(c)3 non-profits can apply for up to $30,000 or $50,000 (depending on size) in funding for local exterior home improvements or public space improvements.

In mentioning that funding opportunity, I want to point to the Oswego Renaissance Association in upstate New York as a great precedent for how these relatively small grants can be used for substantial impacts. The ORA has one of the neatest programs I’ve found via Strong Towns. As they explain,

Among other activities, the Oswego Renaissance Association makes small matching grants to clusters of homeowners who want to collaboratively improve the exterior of their neighborhood. This results in a huge return on investment, not to mention the value of neighbors working together…often for the first time.

This is a simple but profound process that unlocks neighbors’ confidence in their neighborhood.

The ORA’s mini-grant program supports small, visible investments and repairs on clusters of properties, helping spin up collective action and belief on blocks where residents may be suffering from despair about their neighborhood’s prospects. Where the hurdle to residents’ reinvestment is as much about their belief that it’s “worth it” as it is the dollar cost, a program like this can get everyone moving together and supporting each others’ efforts.  (Often, of course, these neighborhoods also suffer from larger economic shifts or histories of discrimination, challenges that require larger interventions and shouldn’t be overlooked in a search for quick fixes.)

MSHDA’s program can be used in exactly this way — to offer every home on a block some funding for exterior rehab, providing a visual and emotional impact that’s greater than what might happen from just one home being fixed up: the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. As an example, Battle Creek’s past grantees Neighborhood Inc. note that their use of NEP funds for home repairs not only got those household engaged in additional projects, but generated a lot of attention from surrounding neighborhood residents.

The MSHDA funds are limited to owner-occupied single family homes, so unfortunately can only be used for a subset of neighborhood residences. A non-profit applicant, community foundation, or private sponsor could add funds to cover these gaps in eligibility; note that the municipality generally cannot use its funds for activities like private home repair.

Thanks to the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, this year’s Convention attendees had the chance to be wowed by the transformation of Detroit’s waterfront during two mobile workshops and a general session with Conservancy CEO Mark Wallace. While our largest city’s efforts are of course larger than what most of our communities will undertake, many of the lessons from their experience can translate to smaller places.

Convention attendees gathered at the start of an urban bike and walk trail

The Dequindre Cut connects from the Detroit Riverwalk two miles north to Eastern Market along a former rail right-of-way.

Plan long-term, work incrementally

Convention attendees gathered around a landscape model

The Conservancy’s Mark Pasco discusses the plans for West Riverfront Park

Conservancy staff noted that they do not own the property that the Riverwalk or Dequindre Cut sit on, instead relying on a network of 99-year easements across a patchwork of privately and publicly-owned properties. In fact, after 16 years of work, this effort is still ongoing, and the Conservancy doesn’t yet have control over all the land needed for the ultimate vision.

This experience will be common to riverfront, lakefront, or trail projects in many communities—and that’s okay. Parts of Detroit’s Riverwalk have been completed and in use for a decade, offering great public spaces even while other pieces are still being put together. Treat these projects as a marathon that may take multiple generations of elected or staff leadership to complete: start with the parts that are available, build momentum, and expand from success.

Don’t give away public access

One missing link in the Riverwalk has been the segment in front of the Riverfront Towers condominiums. Built in the early 1980s on parcels that went to the water’s edge, the condo association was unwilling to allow use of their frontage for the Riverwalk; the conservancy was ultimately able to negotiate a boardwalk in the river to go around the towers’ property. A Riverwalk or similar linear park effort can easily be stymied by a holdout property owner like this—communities should do what they can to avoid having to face these situations.

Where public land along a riverfront or other such feature is sold for development, the community should maintain a public frontage in essentially all cases: where selling rights all the way to the water may boost the value to that single developer and therefore the one-time benefit of the sale price, maintaining it in the public trust provides broader public value in perpetuity. Similarly, any negotiation of development incentives for waterfront property should consider access rights, even if no trail or Riverwalk plans currently exist. If a property is sold or developed without such rights, another chance at that discussion may not arise for several decades.

Design or adapt the space to the people who use it

Children playing in the GM Plaza fountain

This was not the intended use of this space, but the designers followed the users, and it worked.

Wallace noted that the fountain in GM Plaza, in front of the Ren Cen, was originally envisioned as a sculptural element, rather than an interactive feature, but was quickly adopted by kids as a play area. (A development that could have been predicted by anyone who knows small children!) Rather than trying to obstruct access to the water feature, the Conservancy realized this unintended use was a bonus—but that water features which kids play in need more care taken for water quality, requiring an upgrade to the water supply for the fountain.

A learning process over times of how people want to use the space can be a good thing, and can be anticipated and planned for, rather than treated as a mistake. Temporary pop-ups, or a limited initial construction phase can allow some time to see what people like, or what’s not going to work as planned.

Make programming easy

Placemaking is about people, and nothing attracts people like other people. Making it easy for events large and small to use a space gets residents and visitors accustomed to visiting and adding that place to their routine. This means a place like the Riverwalk needs active management and a clear, easy process for event approval. This doesn’t mean a mandate to say “yes” to everything, because of the need to ensure access to all, provide for public safety, event cleanup, etc., but the requirements placed on an event should be clear and easy to meet, with fast turnaround from place managers.

Natural areas and real estate development aren’t incompatible

Conflicts often arise during discussions of vacant land, especially along water, around perceived zero-sum trade-offs. Dedicating new parkland can be seen as a missed opportunity for economic development or new housing, while construction along natural corridors draws opposition as antithetical to nature. Detroit’s Riverfront shows these purposes can thrive in coordination, with a variety of amphibians, reptiles, and birds in restored natural areas alongside new homes for humans.

Tour group photographing a great blue heron perched on a light fixture in front of new residential development

That’s an actual heron on the lamppost, not some concocted sculptural element.

In reaching this balance, the design of both aspects is important. Natural spaces that support wildlife (and stormwater management) doesn’t mean either a grassy lawn or just leaving be an overgrown farm field, but requires attention to scale, grading, plant selection, and creation of contiguous corridors. Not to mention education–as Wallace and other Conservancy staff noted, having high-functioning natural ecosystems can involve fielding complaints from park users who think the space is overgrown with “weeds”.

New construction can have the broadest benefit if it prioritizes multi-family apartments or condos, targeted to a mix of income levels, over stand-alone house construction. Additionally, where the footprint of development is large enough to include new streets and blocks, avoid placing long continuous block faces towards the water or natural area—a block pattern that has frequent streets or alleys perpendicular to the natural area will allow the greatest access for residents further into the neighborhood.


While Detroit’s Riverfront has benefited from substantial private donations, some of the funding sources used are available to other communities statewide:

All of these grant programs have an April 1st annual application deadline, and require that the local government applicant have an adopted 5-year Recreation Master Plan on file with DNR. Communities interested in applying should discuss their projects with MDNR grants staff well in advance of the deadline.