Calumet residents, supporters and business leaders participate in a successful visioning session in the village Monday.

Calumet residents, supporters and business leaders participate in a successful visioning session in the village Monday.

Two Upper Michigan communities are in the early planning stages of potential revitalization.

Scott MacInnes

Scott MacInnes

The Villages of Calumet and Baraga are each having public meetings this week as key first steps in forming new village master plans. The work is being supported by Michigan Municipal League Northern Michigan field consultant Scott MacInnes. Upward of 40 people attended a public visioning session in Calumet on Monday and Baraga’s event is tonight.

“I’ve been working closely with villages of Baraga and Calumet as both have relatively new management and no master plan or they haven’t had one in long long time,” said MacInnes, who is the former, long-time Houghton city manager. “We’re trying to get these communities to focus on what they want to be in the next 20 years. Both are losing population and need to turn their communities around.”

MacInnes was pleased with Monday’s turnout in Calumet and said people in both communities are excited about the visioning work, that started last fall with Michigan Technological University students conducting community surveys in both villages.

Calumet supporters share their ideas on ways to improve the Upper Peninsula community.

Calumet supporters share their ideas on ways to improve the Upper Peninsula community.

 

“We got a lot of good input from them,” MacInnes said of those attending Monday’s visioning session. “People are pretty excited about this planning.”

He said both communities are situated in the UP’s Keweenaw Peninsula near areas that are experiencing economic success, such as Houghton, Hancock and Copper Harbor. So it’s possible for Calumet and Baraga to also see a turnaround, but it starts with having a plan.

“There’s been nothing like this for quite a number of years and they’ve really been operating on a day-to-day basis. We got to figure out how to control the blight and start fixing up homes and encourage small businesses to move back in. Now hopefully we can turn this around.”

Calumet Village Administrator Rob Tarvis told the area’s Mining Gazette newspaper that he also was pleased with Monday’s event and said it will go a long way in improving the village for years to come.

The two meetings are being facilitated by Brad Neuman, educator with Michigan State University Extension, and he had attendees give comments at three stations – a map of assets in the village, a chart showing survey results of issues important to residents and a three-question survey asking residents, business owners and supporters for their visions for the village’s future. The questions were, “What are you really proud of about the community?”, What are you sorry or not so proud of about the community?”, and “Imagine you’ve come back to the community after 20 years away; What do you see and experience that has changed for the better?”

Matt Bach is director of media relations for the Michigan Municipal League. He can be reached at mbach@mml.org and (734) 669-6317.

Gem-Theater-600x250

Gem Theater

Detroit was at the heart of CNU 24 last week!

For the past two years, the League partnered with Congress for the New Urbanism to bring their 24th international convention to our doorstep. League staffers held positions on the host committee and participated in legacy charrettes for four Metro Detroit neighborhoods, all in preparation for last week. That’s when experts in urban planning, design, architecture, and related disciplines gathered from around the globe to learn from each other and – in this case – discover the story of Detroit’s transformation.

Detroit-Opera-House-04-300x200

Detroit Opera House

I’m a native Detroiter and have seen the city go through some tough times, but I was truly impressed with the beauty, vibrancy, and positive energy I encountered. I was doubly-impressed when I heard the enthusiastic exclamations of CNU attendees from as far away as Ecuador and Australia. “The Opera House is gorgeous!” “I can’t wait to ride the People Mover!” “Campus Martius is so cool!” “Detroit is much nicer than I expected!”

For four days, the schedule was jam-packed with sessions, workshops, forums, and tours. Participants could head to the beautiful Gem Theater to learn about the principles of new urbanism from Andres Duany, one of the founding members of Congress for the New Urbanism. Walk across the street to the spectacular Detroit Opera House to hear about Detroit’s history and revitalization or how new forms of transportation are changing the way people move around their cities. Or hop on a tour bus and experience the wonders of downtown Detroit architecture, America’s best small city (Ann Arbor), Birmingham’s new urban downtown, or Windsor’s Old Sandwich Towne, one of the oldest established communities in Ontario.

Evenings were full of activity, too, including Thursday’s Charter Awards ceremony, which recognized exemplary work in architectural, landscape, urban, and regional design. Two Detroit-based companies – Bedrock Detroit and Hamilton Anderson Associates – won the grand prize for the design of their Brush Park project.  At the ceremony, the 2016 Congress Legacy Project teams also presented their final reports.

Legacy Projects

Hazel-Park-150x130 Vernor-Crossing-150x130 Grandmont-Rosedale-150x130 Pontiac-150x130
Hazel Park Vernor Crossing Grandmont-Rosedale Pontiac

All the sessions were as varied in topic as they were in location, but I found that a common theme ran through many of them: putting people first. We were reminded of an important Jane Jacobs quote: “People make cities and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans.”

In a session on urbanism and sustainability, Kaid Benfield, senior counsel for environmental strategies at Placemakers, emphasized that we need to aspire to build places people love or they won’t be sustained. In a session on new transportation options, Russell Preston, design director of Principle Group, advised the audience that they should think about people and place first and weave transportation options around them. In a session on the revitalization of Detroit’s neighborhoods, Quincy Jones, executive director of the Osborn Neighborhood Alliance, shared that people are committed to their neighborhoods and will fight for them.

Be-The-Change-300x200But perhaps most importantly, in a session on Detroit’s food and food justice movement, Devita Davison, marketing and communications director for FoodLab Detroit, passionately told the audience that Detroit has its problems, but Detroiters also have hope. It’s up to all of us to be the change we want to see.

 

Last week something pretty cool happened: 200 people attended a community visioning workshop in Vassar, MI. The city has a population of about 2,600, so a 7% turnout is a success worth celebrating.pavilion

This visioning event was pretty unlike most organized through a traditional charrette. When I first sat down with the local steering committee as part of our PlacePOP initiative, leaders said they wanted to host an event people actually wanted to come to. They named the project Vassar Vision and decided to host their first event as a “Taste & Talk” to combine two things most people love: food & talking! The Taste & Talk was held on the project site and had barbeque, ice cream floats, games, and plenty of social time. Ronald McDonald was even there.

There is a lot that went into the event, and there’s still a lot to come. However, here’s a quick look at what made the Taste & Talk so successful:

The Place: Ready for Change

Corner Deli is opening downtown Vassar this summer and owners gave out free samples during the Taste & Talk.

Corner Deli is opening downtown Vassar this summer and owners gave out free samples during the Taste & Talk.

Vassar is about two square miles of Tuscola County, located about 15 minutes east of Frankenmuth. Like almost every Michigan community, Vassar lost people, industry, and business in the crash and is working hard to rebuild what was once there. But they don’t just stop there; residents want Vassar to be better than it ever was.

What’s noticeable about Vassar is that people seem excited and ready for change. At the Taste & Talk, my colleagues and I heard zero negative comments. When was the last time that happened at your community meeting? (I’m sure there were a few naysayers present, but we certainly didn’t hear them.)

This past October, council hired a new city manager, Brian Chapman, and encouraged him to go big. He’s young, smart, and off to a strong start in the community. Vassar is also experiencing a pretty unique boom in their downtown. Six new businesses have just opened or are about to open on the same small downtown strip. Residents are thrilled to have a new downtown boutique, coffee shop, and restaurant and they want to make sure these businesses are here to stay. After seeing downtown businesses close in the past, people who love Vassar are eager to step up and do what they can to make sure these businesses succeed.

The Project: Building Momentum, Generating Ideas, Expanding Capacity

After seeing information on the League’s PlacePOP program, Chapman invited me to lead a placemaking workshop this past February. During the workshop, about 30 local leaders learned about placemaking and brainstormed how Vassar can better prioritize place. Attendees broke off into discussion groups and every group identified the same location as an area in need for some TLC. I’ve actually never seen that happen before.

Attendees brainstormed hundreds of ideas during the event.

Attendees brainstormed hundreds of ideas during the event.

The T. North Pavilion area is adjacent to downtown and encompasses a pavilion, play structure, gigantic parking lot, river, drain, and a few miscellaneous buildings mostly used for storage. The pavilion gets some use throughout the year for hockey tournaments, basketball, farmers market, and concert series, and the play structure gets used by kids and young families in the warmer months. The rest mostly just sits there.

When every workshop group identified this area as a top priority, the city took action. They hired the League as project manager to act as a neutral, outside facilitator and to prevent already over-worked city staff from having to manage a new project. Chapman put together a foundational steering committee to guide and make decisions on the project, and the steering committee continues to grow as more and more stakeholders get excited and involved.

Vassar Vision, carried out from late March through September, is an engagement-based process that will develop a concept design and programming plan for the T. North Pavilion area. The project also serves as an important way to unify the community, have fun, and find new leaders who can take the lead on current and future community-wide initiatives.

The People: The Most Important Part

Rebel Soul opened downtown Vassar this spring and gives residents and visitors a unique shopping experience.

Rebel Soul opened downtown Vassar this spring and gives residents and visitors a unique shopping experience.

As in every community, there are some incredible people who make up Vassar. Sandy Keys, for example, is an elderly woman almost solely responsible for getting all nine of the Taste & Talk’s food vendors to host a free tasting table. Although Sandy spent May traveling the country for her grandchildren’s graduations, baptisms, and more, she never stopped doing outreach for the event. “I’m just a volunteer,” Sandy tells people, but it’s clear she’s a lot more than that.

Star Filkins recently opened her boutique, Rebel Soul, in downtown Vassar. Star and her husband moved back to Vassar to be closer to their family as they raise their kids but the transition back home was harder than they expected. As a young mom who had lived in many other places across the country, Star felt there wasn’t much in Vassar for her. She decided to open her shop because she wanted to start building community for herself and for people like her. “This is where I live, where I work, and where I’m raising my children,” Star said. “I’ve seen how awesome other places are and I want Vassar to be like that.”

The owner of Vassar Theatre gave out free popcorn during the event.

The owner of Vassar Theatre gave out free popcorn during the event.

Andreas Fuchs re-opened the downtown Vassar Theatre late last year, which now acts as an important downtown anchor. Andreas thinks of his theatre as more of a gathering place than a movie theatre. “It’s very clear to me that theatre is about community,” he said. “Yes it’s also about movies but it’s more about people. People see movies!” Andreas brings free popcorn just about wherever he goes and hosts costume parties, giveaways, and discussions based on the moves the theatre shows. It’s people like Andreas, Star, and Sandy who make the community what it is.

The Taste & Talk event was both fun and effective, and it happened because the steering committee has ownership and decision-making power over the project. Andreas, Star, and Sandy don’t care about charrettes, they care about their community. And they, along with the rest of the steering committee, hosted an event that was right for Vassar.

I’m looking forward to seeing our design consultants work their magic as they review the hundreds of ideas attendees generated about the use and aesthetics of the space. We’ll be back doing more creative engagement in August as part of Vassar’s Riverfest. I’m guessing it will be another unique and impactful event!

Visit Placemaking.MML.org/PlacePOP for more information on the PlacePOP program. Stay updated with Vassar’s project by joining their Facebook group.

Spoiler alert: If you like to be surprised when you pick up the League’s Review, maybe wait until you get the July issue to read this post—I’m going to be talking a bit about the projects from my article in that issue, because word count made me leave these notes out.

I recently sat down with the heads of two projects from the Public Spaces Community Places crowdgranting program; both projects adaptively reused vacant Ypsilanti properties as community spaces.  One, the Ypsilanti Farmers Marketplace, has made an old drive-through bank mini-branch and adjacent 1930s warehouse into an indoor/outdoor market, event space, retail garden supply store, and demonstration kitchen.  The other, Cultivate Café and Tap House, turned an unassuming auto repair garage into a community room.

In both cases, the “business”-like activities of the managing non-profit are a critical piece of the placemaking effort’s success, and good reminders that getting the physical design of the space right is not enough on its own.

Ypsiplanti offers an amazing array of garden tools, seeds, books, houseplants, compost, and similar products in a tiny footprint.

Ypsiplanti offers an amazing array of garden tools, seeds, books, houseplants, compost, and similar products in a tiny footprint.

The Marketplace is teeming with people on market days: over 300 people visited in the first hour of the opening Tuesday earlier this month.  But what happens the rest of the week? Many farmers market sites sit vacant and empty outside of market days.  To address this, Growing Hope has opened “Ypsiplanti”, a hole-in-the-wall garden supply inside the old bank building.  Not only does this fill a gap in downtown Ypsilanti, which previously lacked such a store, but it also draws some traffic to the site 6 days a week. The level of activity certainly doesn’t compare to market days, but having a staff member on the site provides “eyes on the street” and keeps the marketplace from feeling like dead space.

Cultivate uses its glossy coffeehouse appearance to bring people together.

Cultivate uses its glossy coffeehouse appearance to bring people together.

The founders of Cultivate, similarly, use the café’s coffee and beer to feed the nonprofit space’s function as a community gathering place, in terms of both revenue and people.  Beverage sales pay for the few paid staff and keeping the lights on, with additional proceeds and tips going towards the organization’s charitable work of fighting hunger. Running a coffee shop certainly doesn’t qualify as “easy”, but providing people a cup of coffee while they talk is a way to raise money in the process of the community building work, rather than having to constantly set aside that function in order to focus on organizing fundraiser events.

As well, coffeehouses and pubs have set the model for “third places” for centuries for good reason—they are places people go individually and have spontaneous interactions, rather than relying on organized events to get people together.  While I have attended specific, planned events at Cultivate, I’ve much more often gone there because, well, I wanted coffee, and wound up talking to someone I ran into. The first draft of my Review article was written there, which was perhaps a poor choice for productivity, but a good one for community: I was distracted repeatedly in talking to a neighbor, a city councilmember, a DDA board member, and a local historian who wanted to pick my brain about past property ownership on a particular street.

While the central focus of our placemaking work has been on the physical space—the piece cities tend to have the most direct control over—these examples highlight the importance of offering people everyday reasons to use the space. In both of these cases, the physical space and the activity generation were handled by the same organization, in conscious coordination. Cities may not be able to copy exactly these models in their own public space projects, but should actively look for partners who can provide reasons for people to use the space once it’s there.