Big box stores can have second lives, as Westland's Circuit City to City Hall renovation, completed in 2014, demonstrates.

Big box stores can have second lives, as Westland’s Circuit City to City Hall renovation demonstrates. (top: League staff, 2015; bottom: LoopNet listing, 2012)

In 2012, the City of Westland set aside plans to build a new city hall–the long-needed replacement to a ’60s vintage building that was literally rotting from a high water table–in favor of buying and renovating an abandoned Circuit City on Warren Road.  This choice saved nearly $5 million (a third of the original budget!) while netting twice as much square footage, allowing the city to consolidate its cable channel, Youth Services, economic development, and other functions into a single building. As a bonus, the city has one fewer vacant and blighted property to monitor.

Summit participants offer their ideas for the vacant parcels next to Westland City Hall.

Summit participants offer their ideas for the vacant parcels next to Westland City Hall.

This success story made Westland City Hall the perfect venue for the League’s first Suburban Summit, with teams from suburban communities around southeast Michigan gathering to discuss strategies for helping their neighborhoods and commercial corridors mature and adapt to changing societal needs. (A second summit was held the next day at Fifth/Third Ballpark in Comstock Park for West Michigan communities.)

Ellen Dunham-Jones leads discussion of strategies for dealing with shuttered shopping malls.

Ellen Dunham-Jones leads discussion of strategies for dealing with shuttered shopping malls.

Georgia Tech’s Ellen Dunham-Jones (watch her TED talk!) joined architect and Birmingham City Commissioner Mark Nickita to lead discussion of the possibilities for updating the commercial corridors and neighborhoods of the last half century to meet the growing demand for walkable communities and a wider variety of housing choices: as families with school-aged children become a smaller share of households, communities must offer some draw beyond the formula of a good school district and single-family homes with enough bedrooms. This formula worked from the 1950s through the 1980s, when Baby Boomers and Millennials were growing up, but we know that the preferences of those demographics have shifted to living in places with more, well, place to them.

While those post-war suburbs are starting without some of the assets that support placemaking in older downtowns and neighborhood nodes, they have a huge asset in their huge, single-owner commercial parcels.  As Nickita pointed out, a vacant Kroger and its expanse of cracking parking lot may offer the same acreage as all of downtown Plymouth, or the entire Mackinac Island townsite, with relatively few complications standing in the way of implementing a new strategy.  A single large commercial parcel can therefore support the creation of an entire new walkable, mixed-use neighborhood center, without any changes or disruption required in the surrounding area.

This is by no means a fast or easy process, but a committed city with engaged private development partners can combine complete streets, green infrastructure, good urban design, careful market research, and updated policies to provide their residents–new and old–with the sense of place that will serve them for the next few generations.

We’re proud to be part of Michigan’s leadership in building on place, but that doesn’t mean we’re content to rest on our laurels or pretend we’ve got everything figured out.  We’re still learning as we go, and updating our practice as we figure out what’s working well and what needs more attention in our communities.  As a result, many of the projects in this year’s third cycle of the PlacePlans program look very different from the initial pilots!

Yesterday, at the Building Michigan Communities conference, I was joined by some of our on-the-ground partners to talk about the different types of projects we’ve undertaken, and how the program has grown:

Allegan's first phase of construction shows the evolution from the vision created during their PlacePlans design process to the nuts and bolts of engineering considerations.

Allegan’s first phase of construction shows the evolution from the vision created during their PlacePlans design process to the nuts and bolts of engineering considerations.

Rob Hillard, city manager of Allegan, hosted one of our first PlacePlans projects: in 2012, we first teamed up with the team of physical space design experts from MSU’s School of Planning, Design, and Construction to look at the City of Allegan’s downtown waterfront. Allegan is one of our best-case scenarios: less than 6 months after the PlacePlans team wrapped up work, local voters approved removing $500,000 from the city’s sinking fund to seed implementation, and the city was able to leverage that to secure another $567,000 from other sources: the city is currently out to bid for the first phase of construction, which will create a public plaza with stage and amphitheater while “both reducing and improving parking.” Even while we see this as a successful move from our work to results, watching Rob’s follow-through helped us understand how we needed to look at funding scenarios–and getting potential funders involved–early in the process to support that transition. With that in mind, we’ve kept Samantha busy in her new role as President of the League’s Foundation.

We also decided that, while the design process worked well for Allegan, it wasn’t the type of support that many of our cities were stating a need for.  Laura Lam, community and economic development director for Kalamazoo, talked about her experience in the second round of PlacePlans, when we assembled teams of private consulting firms to address targeted needs in some of our cities.

LSL's transportation expertise helped Kalamazoo weigh trade-offs within the existing bounds of Portage Street.

LSL’s transportation expertise helped Kalamazoo weigh trade-offs within the existing bounds of Portage Street: the city will be undertaking a trial reconfiguration of the street this summer in advance of a planned reconstruction.

The City of Kalamazoo is acting on several of the recommendations from our work, but perhaps the biggest impacts will come from the engagement of the neighborhood’s anchor institutions, such as  and Bronson Hospital, which has committed to reduce driving and parking demand to their campus and is hiring a bicycle coordinator in support of that goal.  To make those connections, we had to change directions mid-stream in our work to catch up to and coordinate with related discussions that KVCC was hosting around the development of their new Healthy Living Campus. This year’s approach to our work in Saginaw is strongly shaped by that experience: sometimes all the right pieces are already on the table, and figuring out how to put them together is more important than bringing anything novel.

Berkley addressed ambivalence over turning a downtown street into a festival plaza by jumping in and trying it out.

Berkley addressed ambivalence over turning a downtown street into a festival plaza by jumping in and trying it out.

Finally, Sarah Szurpicki, a partner with New Solutions Group, talked about the projects that her team facilitated in Berkley and Utica last summer. These two cities had pitched us projects that we liked, but that weren’t quite ready for the full PlacePlans approach, so we engaged Sarah to help them road-test some ideas. Not only did this help the cities figure out where to take these project, but our experience with those cities’ stakeholder groups helped us organize community members better in all of our projects: we’ve added a “community steering committee” to most of our PlacePlans this year, to make sure we’re not missing any voices or opportunities. Additionally, these two cities reinforced that small-scale efforts need to be exceptionally focused: Berkley’s project gave clearer direction for next steps because it was tightly focused on a single downtown block.

We’ll probably never do PlacePlans the same way two years in a row, and that’s a good thing: it means that, even with our successes, we keep figuring out how we could do better with the next one.

There's a sidewalk here, but the snow and ice cover renders it impassible for some and dangerous to all.

The sidewalk doesn’t end here, but any reasonable expectation of safe travel does.

With many of Michigan’s communities recovering from our coldest or snowiest Februaries on record, the Water Hill neighborhood in Ann Arbor is making headlines from The Atlantic’s CityLab to the Christian Science Monitor with “SnowBuddy.” From their webpage:

SnowBuddy is a unique nonprofit sidewalk snow removal service run like a public radio station.  It provides its service for free to an entire area and is supported by donations.

Instead of dividing walkways into segments assigned to property owners, SnowBuddy sees the sidewalk as a continuous right-of-way, a transportation corridor most appropriately maintained in its entirety, using municipal-quality equipment, as a service to the community.

SnowBuddy's tractor can clear the sidewalk in front of a residential lot in approximately 10 seconds.  Photo courtesy Paul Tinkerhess.

SnowBuddy’s tractor can clear the sidewalk in front of a residential lot in approximately 10 seconds. Photo courtesy Paul Tinkerhess.

After last year’s heavy snows, neighbors raised over $20,000 to put a down payment on a sidewalk tractor with brush and plow attachments, buy fuel, ice melt, and insurance, and train a team of volunteer drivers. After each  snow, SnowBuddy clears 12 miles of sidewalk throughout the neighborhood, as well as clearing the major walking routes to downtown Ann Arbor.  (Another team of volunteers, the “windrow patrol,” hand-shovels the sidewalk curb ramps at intersections where they’ve been buried by the city’s snow plows.)

The project is a testament to Water Hill’s neighborly sense of place (see also their annual music festival, held on dozens of front porches each May), but it also poses a serious question: if we want walking and biking to be real transportation choices in our communities, can we reasonably leave sidewalk snow removal to individual property owners?

Dozens of Michigan communities have formally adopted Complete Streets ordinances or policies, recognizing that thriving downtowns and attractive urban neighborhoods require infrastructure that serves residents’ varied transportation needs, from car, bus, and delivery truck to bicycle and pedestrian.  As SnowBuddy’s organizers point out, though, few of these Complete Streets policies extend beyond the construction of the infrastructure to its maintenance.  Transportation only works as a network: a 40-foot long stretch of ice where a single property owner has failed to clear their sidewalk makes a pedestrian’s commute dangerous, no matter how diligent the rest of the neighbors on the block.

Why is it that most communities consider street plowing among the most fundamental of public services, but leave sidewalks snow removal in the hands of individual property owners?  If we continue to have winters like this year’s and last, we may need better answers to that question as we strive to build attractive, quality places.

Visiting family in Grand Rapids’ Heritage Hill neighborhood over the holidays is always a great opportunity to dive into another city’s urban form.  (Or at least that’s the excuse I give to get out of the house and away from family for a while!)  The

Great neighborhoods dedicate only the bare minimum amount of space to parking.

Great neighborhoods dedicate only the bare minimum amount of space to parking.

area, just east of downtown and south of the Medical Mile, is one of Michigan’s great urban neighborhoods, and it achieves that status despite (or because of) breaking several “everybody knows” rules of neighborhood planning.

Most communities’ planning & zoning documents assume an ideal neighborhood to be one that is dominated by owner-occupied single-family homes, with adequate yards for those families’ children to play in and driveways and garages for their cars to park in–any other neighborhood pattern is treated as somewhat less desirable, whether for reasons of “stability”, property values, maintenance standards, nuisance, or similar.  Many people certainly do want to live in that type of neighborhood, but because our zoning has enforced this as the “good” neighborhood pattern for 70 years now, most of our cities have an oversupply of it, while lacking options for residents who want something else.

The "terrace" pattern in Heritage Hill and Midtown fits half a dozen additional houses into the center of a block, or into places where irregular terrain or other factors break the street grid.

The “terrace” pattern in Heritage Hill and Midtown fits half a dozen additional houses into the center of a block, or into places where irregular terrain or other factors break the street grid.

Heritage Hill, and the adjacent East Hills and Midtown neighborhoods, showcase a different pattern: while most of the properties in this area look like “a house,” these neighborhoods have some of the highest residential densities in the city, and both homeowners and single-family homes are a minority.

This contrast comes from a few factors:

  • Homes are placed on relatively small lots–many less than 1/10 acre.
  • Most have very small “yard” areas, with front porches often within a few feet of the sidewalk, and the building occupying most of its lot.
  • While there are larger apartment buildings scattered through the neighborhood, the majority of dwelling units are in duplexes or  3- or 4-plexes. Some of these are visibly constructed as “flats”, but most are houses.
  • The historic streets are narrow, and off-street parking is limited, dedicating less of the neighborhood’s total acreage to asphalt.

Far from being less desirable as a result, data from GVSU’s Community Research Institute show these neighborhoods having above average shares of young, educated households and above average incomes; property values are strong and rising, and active renovation projects are visible on every block–just the type of talent attraction and local investment outcomes we hope to see from successful strategic placemaking efforts.

Martha's Vineyard, "a corner store with a global wine selection", anchors a neighborhood convenience cluster--pizza, bakery, and coffee--in Midtown.

Martha’s Vineyard, “a corner store with a global wine selection”, anchors a neighborhood convenience cluster–pizza, bakery, and coffee–in Midtown.

The neighborhoods also feature small business districts tucked within them, some only a few buildings large and located on “small residential streets” that wouldn’t meet most standards for commercial development. These are both cause and effect of the neighborhoods’ success: having the ability to grab a quick coffee or a few grocery items for dinner within a short walk of home is a plus for prospective residents–and the high density of those residents provides the critical mass of customers that supports those businesses.

Obviously, the historic housing stock of these neighborhoods is hard to replicate (the photos here are far from the most “grand” examples in the area) though a lot of the ingredients for success can be adopted by other neighborhoods, especially where there is a historic street grid and housing to start with:

Neighborhood organizations use plaque programs both to recognize individual property owners' contributions and build a shared sense of place identity.

Neighborhood organizations use plaque programs both to recognize individual property owners’ contributions and to build a shared sense of place identity.

  • The small lot, duplex to 4-plex pattern that contributes most of the residential density here can be used to add new choices to many neighborhoods, filling the “missing middle” between single-family homes and larger apartment complexes. A form-based code can help ensure these options, either as conversions or new construction, fit in with the existing building stock.
  • Look beyond zoning when considering the appropriate way to manage a neighborhood–here, the historic district designations and controls have clearly been the most significant regulatory contributor to success, rather than zoning.
  • Adopt a Complete Streets approach that allows residents to walk, bike, or take transit to many destinations reduces the need to plan around parking–in these Grand Rapids neighborhoods, about 2/3 of households have only 1 car, or none whatsoever.

Even more than these specific actions, having an engaged neighborhood is critical–the “place governance” here arose in the late 1960s, when residents organized to prevent the widespread demolition of their neighborhood for redevelopment, as well as to reach out and recruit new residents in spite of mortgage redlining, and the place the neighborhood is today reflects the interests and tactics of residents then.  Fortunately, not all organizing for place needs to arise from crisis.