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.

Earlier this week, the city of Ypsilanti released an RFQ seeking developers for one of the sites they identified as a priority through the Redevelopment Ready Communities process. The League created the RFQ document with the support of Beckett & Raeder, Inc., as part of a project, funded by MSHDA through the MML Foundation, to advance placemaking planning into implementation.

Taking plans off the shelf

The first of our development RFQ pilots, recently sent out by the city of Ypsilanti.

The first of our development RFQ pilots, recently sent out by the city of Ypsilanti.

“Planners can make all the plans they want, but it takes developers to execute them.”

This quote on the relationship of city planners to developers in creating communities has stuck with me as much as anything else from planning school. That’s why I’m enthusiastic about these RFQs.

When a community undertakes a PlacePlan, or prepares a residential target market analysis, or undertakes any kind of planning process, they are defining their desired outcomes; a community that goes through RRC then lays the groundwork to ensure they’re not hindering their desired outcomes.

To accelerate the actual completion of these plans, though, the community needs to clearly and actively communicate their expected outcomes, and the work they’ve done. This is the role our RFQs can play.

Traditional stumbling blocks

This project began from a less specific desire to accelerate developments that contribute to a local sense of place, and we arrived at supporting locals with RFQs after conversations with some of our PlacePlans alums, developer partners, and MSHDA and MEDC staff about why things hadn’t worked in the past. Some themes included,

  • Developers often aren’t familiar with the work communities have done—traditional real estate listings don’t elevate that groundwork or communicate the vision.
  • Communities sometimes default to their known procurement processes when trying to communicate with developers, burying the lede under reams of legal requirements and disclosure documents. “Every page has to keep you reading, and if you see it’s 100 pages, you’re not even going to pick it up,” was feedback we got from a broker’s perspective.
  • Local staff don’t have good channels for getting word out about their development priorities: often, they only know a small pool of local builders (or may even lack that!) and don’t know where to find others. “We created an RFQ and put it on our website and sent a press release to the local paper—we don’t know if anybody saw it.” said one city.
  • Similarly, smaller developers may only know the opportunities in their own backyards, and not those just a few communities down the road; larger developers may only have a limited set of “high-profile” places on their radar.

Improving the outreach

The approach we’re taking has two parts, to help address these gaps.

First, we identified a few communities that have been through the Redevelopment Ready certification process, that had identified priority sites in downtown or adjacent neighborhood settings, had done good place-based planning (through PlacePlans or otherwise), had a target market analysis to demonstrate opportunity, and, importantly, had staff capacity to engage.

We are working with those communities to digest the work they’ve already done and tease out the important bits that relate to the target site. We’ve engaged Beckett & Raeder to both prepare concept site plans that provide visual cues of what the community is looking for, and to prepare site-specific fiscal analyses that test those visions against market data—can the community reasonably expect their vision to be buildable as-is, or should they expect a financial gap that will need incentives? And we’re packaging that work into an attractive RFQ document that (hopefully) grabs interest.

BRI prepared three concept site plans for the site, which we vetted with staff and the appointed bodies (Planning Commission and Historic District Commission) that will need to approve any development. The concepts are provided in the RFQ as examples of the city's desired development, but kept general enough to allow the developer creativity.

BRI prepared three concept site plans for the site, which we vetted with staff and the appointed bodies (Planning Commission and Historic District Commission) that will need to approve any development. The concepts are provided in the RFQ as examples of the city’s desired development, but kept general enough to allow the developer creativity.

Second, we’re working on the pipeline issue with support from a number of partners. Both the Michigan chapter of Urban Land Institute and the Home Builders Association of Michigan are promoting these RFQs to their membership, and we’ve also compiled our own contact list of firms active in placemaking-friendly development around the state—over 100 so far, and we’ll continue to expand that. Looking past these initial projects, MEDC has identified a need to expand the developer community active in any given region, through both networking and training, and we’re working with them to help target that need.

As we start to get feedback, we expect we might need to refine either what goes into the RFQ documents, or our approach to targeting developers. Our goal is to figure out a few things that work, and provide some guidance to all of our members about how they can take advantage of it to see their own placemaking goals take shape.  Stay tuned!

I’ve had a firehose-drinking few weeks of thinking about how connected and automated driving could affect our communities. “Could” remains the operative word, at least for self-driving cars, since the buzz still outweighs the reality by a significant factor.

"Gartner's Hype Cycle" for 2016 shows autonomous vehicles (yellow arrow) just about at the top of the "peak of inflated expectations."

“Gartner’s Hype Cycle” for 2016 shows autonomous vehicles (yellow arrow) just about at the top of the “peak of inflated expectations.”

Capital Conference 2017

At the League’s Capital Conference, Harry Lightsey from General Motors shared time-lapse video of one of GM’s vehicles navigating the streets of San Francisco, apparently in autonomous mode. (Caution: If you get motion sick easily, maybe skip the video.)  Nicole DuPuis from National League of Cities followed with thoughts from NLC’s Future of the City work.

We followed with a breakout to talk about the hot-off-the-presses report from PSC and CAR to Prosperity Region 9, outlining near-term issues that our communities need to grapple with. These range from figuring out what training police officers need to handle a potential traffic stop or crash involving an automated vehicle, to completely rethinking parking (how much, where, and at what price?), to understanding the role of public transit agencies in ensuring equitable access as the technology changes.

Briefing with MSU’s new CANVAS research center

The following week, I was invited to speak at a Great Lakes International Trade and Transport Hub briefing at MSU. Several faculty in MSU’s engineering college presented on their CANVAS–Connected and Autonomous Networked Vehicles for Active Safety–research center. Other presentations ranged from Andreas Mai’s V@S model estimating $5 Trillion in global value from CAV over the next decade, to the Stratford, Ontario, city-wide connected mobility pilot projects.

My own comments included a summary of the Region 9 findings. More importantly, though, I focused on the role of policy in shaping the impacts of automated driving—just as policy decisions, from engineering standards to real estate finance programs, played a huge role in determining what personal automobiles meant for our communities.

Technology has a significant impact on the shape of our communities--but the policy context that technology operates in can matter even more.

Technology has a significant impact on the shape of our communities–but the policy context that technology operates in can matter even more.

Future Cities regional workshops

Yesterday, I attended the first of a series of regional meetings that Center for Automotive Research is running on behalf of MDOT and MEDC, examining the impacts of connected vehicles, automated driving, and “mobility services” such as ZipCar, Uber/Lyft, and bikeshare.

CAR are the automotive experts, and cautioned that “level 5” general-purpose automated driving is still far enough over the horizon that they can’t make any reasonable predictions about when it will arrive, let along become widespread. Mobility services, however, are widespread in larger cities now, and both connected vehicle and driver-assist technology (such as lane-keeping and blind-spot detection) is becoming more common on new vehicles, so these may be more critical to plan for now.

One “fun” fact from the CAR presentation were estimates that full deployment of connected vehicle tech could save up to 22% of fuel usage even before hybrid or electric tech or increased CAFE standards are considered. Considering how heavily our transportation funding is based in the gas tax, this could pose a Big Problem by eroding maintenance budgets that much more quickly.

New readings look downstream

Two good pieces came out last week as well, on different facets of CAVs:

  • CityObservatory dives into CAVs, traffic, and road funding. “Given that we think that many of the persistent problems with our current transportation system stem from getting the prices wrong, we think that the way that autonomous vehicles will change the cost and price of urban transportation will be key to shaping their impacts.” They suggest that a VMT model with “surge pricing” that considers where and when the vehicle is driving could be the best way to fund our transportation system and manage congestion as ridesharing and automated driving become more popular.
  • Benedict Evans, a tech venture capitalist, thinks down some rabbit holes about the effects of both automated driving and auto electrification: e.g. if electric vehicles become widespread (or AVs can fuel themselves without you), your neighborhood may no longer need gas stations—and the convenience stores attached to those gas stations may go away too, without a captive user base of people buying gas. And, “well over half of US tobacco sales happens at gas stations, and there are meaningful indications that removing distribution reduces consumption,” meaning reduced car crashes might not be the only health benefit of electric and autonomous vehicles.

What’s next? Watch carefully, plan flexibly.

Where the Capital Conference and MSU events surveyed some potential effects over the next 1-10 years, the CityObservatory and Evans pieces demonstrate just how far-reaching the impacts could be over the longer term.

I’d be a sucker to say I knew what these outcomes will be, though, despite (or because of?) all of the above. My expectation is that we’ll start seeing semi-automated trucking platoons on our interstates and ridehailing/taxi-style or micro-transit automated services in larger urban areas in the 5-10 year timeframe, and we’ll need to remain agile in figuring out what combination of directing, managing, and adapting to the impacts of these changes is possible.

As envisioned in this Swedish video, CAVs and placemaking can be very compatible, if we prioritize space for people over space for vehicles.

As envisioned in this Swedish video, CAVs and placemaking can be very compatible, if we prioritize space for people over space for vehicles.

Meanwhile, carshare (like ZipCar or GM’s new Maven), ridehailing (like Uber or Lyft), and bikeshare are options available now that can support local placemaking efforts to expand transportation choices available to residents–and can help shape the travel habits that we bring to automated driving.

For Valentine’s Day this year, the Young Preservationists of the Great Lakes Bay delivered valentines to their favorite vacant historic properties in Bay City and Saginaw, hoping to draw some attention to these buildings—and perhaps ultimately a soulmate who could breathe life back into some of them.  (Yes, Valentine’s Day was a month ago; I’m the late one here.)

Posting valentines on vacant houses might not fix structural issues, but can help signal to a potential buyer that the community is pulling for them. (Photo courtesy Kristi Kozubel)

Posting valentines on vacant houses might not fix structural issues, but can help signal to a potential buyer that the community is pulling for them. (Photo courtesy Kristi Kozubal)

The “heart bombing” was one of dozens around the country in an effort seeded by the National Trust for Historic Places. The Trust says heart bombing “is the act of showering an older or historic place with tangible expressions of affection and devotion—preferably with lots of other place-lovers in tow,” and provides a quick how-to guide.

The Bay City event’s organizers told MLive they wanted to bring outsiders in to see the structures—and sense of place—that their community has to offer, or to inspire homebuyers to tackle the project of restoring a historic home. (And several of them have tackled restoration or small development projects themselves, so know how much inspiration it takes!)

The Bay City heart bombing team (Photo courtesy Kristi Kozubel)

The Bay City heart bombing team
(Photo courtesy Kristi Kozubal)

As a fan of Candy Chang’s “I Wish This Was” and similar efforts to recast vacant properties as assets and opportunities, I’m glad to see Bay City’s vacant historic buildings getting some love. Next year, perhaps we can get more of our communities sharing their feelings?

Milan’s downtown Tolan Square is a great example of tactical placemaking. Two summers ago, the city turned a piece of this street into a plaza with nothing more than a few heavy planters at each end and some picnic tables. For a budget of around $5,000, the community suddenly had a town square and events space—and one that could be undone quickly if the experiment turned out not to work.

A good space + a reason to be there = placemaking. (And a "coffee-off" is a great reason, in my opinion.) Photo from Milan Coffee Off.

A good space + a reason to be there = placemaking. (And a “coffee-off” is a great reason, in my opinion.) Photo from Milan Coffee Off.

The plaza hosts the farmers & artisans market, as well as events ranging from the Let’s Chill winter festival to the “Coffee Off,” Halloween movie screenings, and youth theater demonstrations.

After the first year, the city asked a local market research firm to evaluate the project. A survey of residents, business owners, and visitors found that the benefit of having the plaza outweighed the frustration of having the block closed to car traffic, as well as providing recommendations for how to improve on this existing level of approval. (For example, having more activities geared towards children would balance the frustration of parents who used to use this block to access the nearby elementary school.)

Tolan Square is a demonstration that placemaking projects don’t have to be grand and flashy—sometimes, smaller efforts can make a big impact on a place. It also points to the importance of programming public spaces: people value the space more than they mind the traffic inconvenience because of what happens there. As the evaluation found, people who participated in events at the plaza regularly were much more likely to state strong support for it. With the approach of conscious discussion, evaluation, and incremental change Milan is applying here, Tolan Square should continue to improve and contribute to downtown in years to come.

Building on success

One thing that stood out to me, both in the evaluation the city did and in my casual observation as a visitor stumbling onto the space, is that the business mix around Tolan Square may limit its impact on downtown. This is not an issue specific to Milan, by any stretch—many small downtowns struggle to create critical mass of storefront businesses that are predictably open in the evening and weekend hours when most retail activity occurs.

A street plaza can be created quickly an inexpensively: take one street and add a combination of barriers and seating to make clear that it's a space for people, not vehicles. Making it successful, though, requires programming activities in the short-term, and nurturing businesses that can mutually reinforce that activity in the long-term.

A street plaza can be created quickly and inexpensively: take one street and add a combination of barriers and seating to make clear that it’s a space for people, not vehicles. Making it successful, though, requires programming activities in the short-term, and nurturing businesses that can mutually reinforce that activity in the long-term.

As the evaluation noted, certain downtown businesses—those that were open evenings and weekends, and sold food and drink or retail shopping experiences—see significant benefit from the plaza. The evaluation report includes quotes from business owners:

“When the farmer’s market turnout is low, my sales are still double that of a typical Friday. But when the farmer’s market has a big turnout, my sales are triple.”

“On the best day of Winterfest, my sales were 15% greater than my previous best sales day in history!”

…but the evaluator also notes that “most downtown businesses are not positively affected” by events in the plaza, because they are office/service businesses that do not rely on (or generate) significant foot traffic, or because they are not open evenings and weekends, when events in the plaza typically occur.

The experience of the businesses that are successfully taking advantage of the plaza shows both the power of placemaking to support a healthy retail district, as well as an opportunity for new businesses to take advantage of the foot traffic generated by Tolan Square and its events—I look forward to coming back for some of these!