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.

Arts-and-Culture-Panel-discussion-April-2015---Shary-Brown-300x200When one of our panelists showed up in a black tutu bedecked with twinkling lights and a matching head ornament, we knew we were in for something special. As board president of WonderFool Productions, Shary Brown completely embodies the whimsical nature of her organization’s events, FoolMoon and FestiFools, which were featured in the League’s new placemaking book, “The Economics of Place: The Art of Building Great Communities.”

festifools-300x200Each year, FoolMoon and FestiFools engage hundreds of University of Michigan students and community members in the creation of luminaries and giant puppets. Huge crowds gather in downtown Ann Arbor to enjoy the results – two unique, brightly-colored street festivals.

“We operate on a different platform. We’re community built,” said Brown. “It’s our goal to help people understand that they, too, can be creative and come together as a community to be a collective creative experience.”

Brown was part of the League’s “Foolish Happy Hour & Panel Discussion” on April 10 (see press release), where panelists shared their views on the importance of arts and culture to a community’s economic vitality. She was joined by fellow panelists Kirk Westphal, Ann Arbor city councilmember, Deb Polich, CEO of Artrain, and moderator Mary Morgan, founder and executive director of The CivCity Initiative.

Arts-and-Culture-Panel-discussion-April-2015-(11)-300x200One of the biggest challenges that arts organizations run into is skeptics that don’t believe that arts and culture can have a positive economic impact on a community. Brown, former executive director of Ann Arbor Street Art Fair, is quick to point out that a 2008 study of the Ann Arbor art fairs showed an influx of $70 million into the community in one week.

“It’s important to understand that these high quality events can draw visitors and money and build the brand of the community,” she said. When traveling to other cities and states, she has often heard people say that they’ve been to the arts fairs, or want to go experience them.

City Commissioner Kirk Westphal is one of those people. Eleven years ago, he and his wife were living in New York City and searching for a new place to call home. They had heard about Ann Arbor’s reputation as a dynamic city with a thriving arts and culture community, so it soon went from their short list to the top of the list. He cited a Knight Foundation study that emphasizes the role of arts and culture in helping form an attachment to the community so that people want to stay, or just as importantly, want to move there.

“There is no just serving the people who are here now,” said Westphal, an urban planner and videographer. “Every day there are people here for a job interview or applying to go to school. Brand matters, what’s going on matters. All those collective decisions affect the future of the community.”

logo_artrain12Deb Polich, in her dual roles as CEO of Artrain and director of the Ann Arbor Arts Alliance, tends to look at the arts community from a county-wide perspective. She pointed out that most of the things that people value in this region – such as education, libraries, and transportation – are publicly-funded. Arts and culture don’t usually fall under that umbrella, so she stressed the importance of the public investing in what they believe in.

A3arts_logo_250In recent years, Polich said that placemaking has been playing an important role in focusing people’s attention on the value of the arts. “Everybody is looking at placemaking to create communities people want to live in,” she said. “They’re investing in arts and culture because they see it as a huge driver in making communities livable.”

Funding the Arts

Since arts and culture so often don’t receive any public funding, arts organizations have to tap into their creativity to find other monetary means to keep their enterprises afloat. “We spend an enormous amount of time finding money to put on a free event,” said Brown, who often relies on the generosity of small businesses and residents for money, work space, and materials. “Nonprofits have to think of ways to building in valuable fundraising.”

Westphal acknowledged the defeat of an arts tax in Ann Arbor in 2012, but suggested that it gives the city an opportunity to think about arts funding differently. He also advised people to quiz city council candidates about their position on the arts. “We can always spend money on other things, but part of it has to be carved out for arts and the future of our community,” he said.

Other states have developed public funding mechanisms to support arts programming. In the Cleveland area, for example, there’s a tax levied on tobacco that is dedicated to the arts. In Austin, Texas, they use a 9 percent accommodation tax to support arts and culture. In November 2008, Minnesotans passed the clean water, land, and legacy amendment to the Minnesota Constitution which includes 3/8 of one percent of the state’s sales tax dedicated to the arts and cultural heritage fund. This amounts to $70 million annually – ½ the budget of the National Endowment for the Arts. Michigan cities have very few taxing options and the panelists called on state lawmakers to change some of these regulations to help further the support for the arts.

Arts Wish List

All the panelists have a vision for what they would like to see in the Ann Arbor arts community five or ten years from now. Westphal would like to see a variety of place-based crowdfunding projects around the community that everyone can participate in and curate themselves. Brown would like to see a bricks-and-mortar creativity center that many creative organizations could share throughout the year. And Polich hopes that Washtenaw County leadership and residents begin embracing the many reasons that arts and culture are important – everything from sparking creativity and innovation to driving tourism and strengthening the local economy. Then maybe the question of “Why are the arts important?” will go away.

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Sprawl – we know it when we see it.  We all live with sprawl in some way or other, but do we ever stop to think how it impacts our lives?  Or do we just go through the motions of everyday life and become comfortably numb to our daily activities and surroundings? And it impacts us financially, as well.  We pay a lot more for sprawl development than for compact development.

Sun City West Sprawl 300x225A recent trip to the Phoenix area, hit me harder than usual.  It wasn’t my first time there, but my awareness and critique of how we build communities become increasingly unforgiving as time goes by.  If I were asked to describe Arizona in a few short words, it would go something like this:  cement pavement, strip malls, franchise restaurants, multilane roads (in one direction), boundless traffic, breathtaking views, soothing mountains, relentless sunshine, blue sky, rich history. Talk about divergent narratives – and all of them are true.  I’m not going to espouse why everyone should experience the beauty of Arizona once in their lifetime, I will leave that to the travel books. I just want to share (or vent is more like it) a few thoughts on poor planning – the bane of our everyday life.

I’m not a trained traffic engineer or certified planner, but I don’t have to be – and neither do you – to know what’s working and what’s not.  We just have to stop and think about how we go about our daily lives, and ask ourselves a few basic questions:  how much time do we spend in a car?  Do we have a local coffee shop or restaurant that we can easily get to?  What do we consider to be the heart of the community?  Can we walk to the library?  (Check out Strong Towns, an organization advocating for vibrant and resilient communities, which offers ten simple questions called the Strong Towns Strength Test to test the strength of your community.)

Most of us know someone who has fled the frigid north for the year-round warmer climates.  On my trip to Phoenix, I visited a friend who lives in a senior community, west of Phoenix.  It is an award winning community development which has separated the housing from shopping, restaurants, and cultural venues.  Sound familiar?  With an aging population, there should be less reliance on a car, not more.  So why are they building and expanding (construction can be seen everywhere) the road system?  The lanes are already confusing, and it’s difficult to access stores and restaurants that you see on the other side of the median.   At all hours of the day, traffic is heavy.  I saw no evidence of traffic calming devices or alternative modes of transportation.  That means you have to get in your car (or take your life in your hands in a golf cart) to get anywhere.  Even though a Starbucks coffee shop was only 2 blocks away from where I was staying, there was no way that I or anybody else was going to feel safe walking over there.  Even the most foolhardy would not risk crossing the multilane roads which lacked any clear markings for pedestrians

verrado pic 300x225I did, however, see an example of a planned community, which has all the potential for great community living. It is called Verrado, in Buckeye, Arizona, west of Phoenix. It is built on the principles of New Urbanism.  Once you get off the freeway, you truly enter an oasis of peaceful, walkable neighborhood living, with the presence of bike and walking paths everywhere.  Although there were a fair amount of people in the small town center on a Sunday, a second visit during the week, showed a lot less people.  It was clear that this community is in its infancy.  More businesses and restaurants need to open to attract more people before it becomes a true destination.

Of course, we don’t have to go to Arizona to find examples of uncontrolled sprawl.  We can go anywhere in this country and find it, including right here in Michigan.  We are becoming an older nation, and unlike previous generations, as boomers age, they are choosing to age in place.  That means that communities will have to be ready to meet their growing needs. There is no time to waste.  We need to build more mixed-use communities, retrofit our suburbs, and consider alternative modes of transportation that will accommodate these challenges.  And in the end, we will be providing a great quality of life for all generations.

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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.

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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.