A once-abandoned commercial strip in northwest Detroit’s Old Redford community is now the center of activity for artists, students, business owners, and neighbors. The transformation of Artist Village wasn’t quick, and it certainly wasn’t easy.Artist village

More the 10,000 volunteers dismantled 300 abandoned homes to repurpose the materials for new construction. Nonprofit Motor City Blight Busters partnered with public, private, and nonprofit organizations to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars into the project. Hundreds of community leaders came out of the woodwork and dedicated time, money, and resources to Artist Village. And years later, the area is vibrant, home to many small businesses, artists, and a strong group of organized residents.

The Michigan Blight Elimination Guidebook

Many Michigan communities are still struggling to manage blight and vacancy issues – Detroit is, by far, not alone. Diminishing revenues often prevent municipalities themselves from taking the lead on blight elimination, but the local government, state, resident groups, and organizational partners are working together to address blight and vacancy across the state.

Read the document at MIBlightGuidebook.org/

Read the document at MIBlightGuidebook.org

In light of these challenges, the Michigan Vacant Property Campaign (MVPC) recently released a comprehensive Blight Elimination Guidebook that gives communities the tools, resources, and process to address blight and vacancy at the local level.

“In the face of shrinking resources, this guidebook empowers leaders to develop plans that strategically address blight.” said Danielle Lewinski, vice president and director of Michigan Initiatives at the Center for Community Progress and MVPC member. “Its step-by-step approach will not only help communities in Michigan, but can also serve as a model for cities around the country that are working hard to address vacancy and abandonment with limited dollars.”

The guidebook is hosted at miblightguidebook.org, making it an ever-changing document that compiles the most recent blight mitigation resources, opportunities, and ideas from across the state. It also serves as a primer for Michigan communities interested in developing a strategy to more effectively address blight with limited resources. The document is designed to provide municipal leaders with a variety of blight elimination resources and lead them through the development of a blight elimination plan.

Additional Blight Resources

MVPC is a collaboration of four partner organizations that each address blight and vacancy issues in unique ways: Center for Community Progress, Community Economic Development Association of Michigan, Michigan Community Resources, and Michigan Municipal League.

Screen Shot 2015-06-22 at 3.14.02 PMHere at the League, we have a number of resources, sample ordinances, articles, and case studies all addressing blight from a local government and community perspective.

Artist Village is just one great example of cooperation and community activism that has sparked economic development and civic engagement. Communities across the state – small towns in the UP, villages in northern and mid-Michigan, and cities on the east and west side – all have incredible success stories in their effort to eliminate blight and fill vacant structures. There’s still a lot of work to do, but this resource will guide communities to promote strategic and collaborative blight elimination on a limited budget.

Feel free to contact the League or MVPC for more information on the report and blight elimination assistance.

 

Nate-handing-out-money-200x230“Money” and conversation were flowing at Farmington Hills City Hall as residents of both Farmington and Farmington Hills gathered for the unveiling of the preliminary design plans for the 10 Mile/Orchard Lake intersection.

As they walked in the door, Nate Geinzer, assistant to the city manager, handed everyone $1,000 in play money and asked them to “invest” it in the placemaking features that are most important to them in this process. Their choices ranged from events and activities, communications, and streetscape to pedestrian/bike facilities and public space. At the end of the evening, the money was counted and the interesting results are shown in the graph below.

Viewing-plans-300x200At the March visioning workshop, residents and businesses had an opportunity to share their ideas for reimagining the 10 Mile/Orchard Lake intersection. Following that session, the urban design team from Lawrence Technological University – Professor Kim Joongsub and student Dustin Altschul – reviewed all the ideas and converted them into a design proposal. Several copies of the design, along with the draft report, were on display for everyone to view and comment on.

Altschul describes the design, which was available for view and comment, as aligning with the communities’ ideals of making walkability and biking more pleasurable, strengthening community connections with a public gathering space, and adding environmentally-conscious elements.

investing-chart-300x274Download Area Plan
Download Concept Design
Download Phasing Plan
Download Project Timeline

 

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Dwight Pete Mitchell with his wife, Margo

It was easy to see how Benton Harbor’s Dwight Pete Mitchell City Center Park got its moniker. When its namesake was introduced at the park’s June 16 design workshop, thunderous applause broke out! Clearly, he was a very popular city manager during his 2002-2008 tenure.

Mitchell was part of a large crowd that gathered at Benton Harbor Public Library to get their first glimpse of Michigan State University’s preliminary design plans for the park. After gathering feedback from the community at a visioning workshop in April, professors Warren Rauhe and Wayne Beyea returned with two alternatives. Rauhe referred to the first plan as a “people’s park”, featuring a multi-purpose stage, concession stand, farmers market and an urban wetland area. He characterized the second plan as a “traditional park with a bold architectural attitude.” That plan includes an events lawn, central fountain, shaded space, and a “sail-covered” promenade.

Group-viewing-design-plans-300x200After a brief presentation from Rauhe, the crowd was let loose to wander around for the main event of the evening – gathering feedback. With sticky notes and pens in hand, they wrote comments on what they loved and didn’t love and posted them right on the drawings. Now, Rauhe, Beyea and their student teams will go back to the drawing board and assimilate all that feedback into a new round of renderings. In August, Benton Harbor residents will have a chance to review the new drawings as the plan for the park gets closer and closer to meeting the needs and desires of the community.

 

 

Cars are king in most Michigan suburbs. We have designed our suburbs for efficiency of process, where uses are separated and car-oriented, said Ellen Dunham-Jones, co-author of Retrofitting Suburbia, at the League’s Suburban Summits in May. But in recent years, suburbs have been hit with a double-punch from the struggling economy and changing demographics, leaving them with empty buildings and properties in need of a new life.

That’s a game-changer, says Dunham-Jones, making efficiency of place the watchword of the day as we consider how to redevelop our suburbs. The efficiency of more compact, urban development can provide cities with lower infrastructure costs and higher tax revenue per acre. At the same time, it offers millennials and baby boomers the walkable, urban lifestyle they crave.

As suburbs consider how to retrofit underutilized properties, Dunham-Jones emphasizes first knowing why the site died. That will help determine which of the following design strategies is the most appropriate, although many older retrofits have some degree of all three strategies:

  • Reinhabit – use the building for a more community-service purpose
  • Redevelop – build a more dense, urban, walkable place
  • Regreen – turn the site into a park or open space

For more details on these three strategies, please read an earlier blog, “Creating a Purposeful New Life for Old Suburban Sites”.

21st Century Challenges

Retrofitting can also help suburbs address a variety of 21st century challenges – everything from auto-dependence and jobs to an aging population and environmental issues.

Auto-dependence
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Many of today’s consumers would like to ditch their cars and walk or take transit to a variety of places – a pretty big challenge in our auto-oriented suburbs. At Mashpee Commons in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, developers addressed that problem by building a quaint New England village on the parking lot of an old strip center. The new development boasts first floor shops with apartments above, as well as civic space.

Public Health
The sedentary lifestyle of the suburbs has contributed to an epidemic of chronic diseases, such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Human sprawl and suburban sprawl correlate, says Dunham-Jones. People in urban areas tend to lead more active lifestyles, so she advises introducing more physical activity and walkability and making streets safer. One example she offered is the dying One Hundred Oaks Mall in Nashville, Tennessee. Vanderbilt University took over the second floor of the mall for a medical center. The center is getting better patient results as people love the convenient location and the chance to shop while waiting for their appointment.

Social Capital
Suburban social life used to revolve around schools, but with a rising number of childless households, people are seeking new “third” places when they can build community. A group in Oak Cliff, Texas came up with a creative solution to that challenge along a boarded-up block of businesses.  For two days, the Build a Better Block group transformed the block with art in the store windows, street trees, food trucks and more. Two small ordinance changes from the city enabled some of these changes to become permanent.

Equity and Affordability
Transportation costs are higher in the suburbs, particularly for people in the lower half of the income bracket. They often spend more on transportation than housing, so affordable housing near affordable transportation is essential. At Cottages on Greene Street in Rhode Island, the answer to affordable housing came in the form of dense, quaint cottages that seamlessly transition into the surrounding commercial area.

Jobs
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Attracting and retaining millennial workers is tricky as most of them have no interest in the “Dilbert-style” cubicles typically available in suburban office parks, says Dunham-Jones.  Denver, Colorado has the right idea with their TAXI development, a former taxi garage that now houses cool, loft-style office space and even a swimming pool made from shipping containers.

Energy
As energy costs escalate, energy conservation becomes a bigger concern. At the Mueller development in Austin, Texas, a former airport is being developed into an urban community where all the houses are on a smart grid and use solar power.

Water
Water can be a challenge on several fronts – your community may have too much, too little, or the quality has been compromised. At Northgate Urban Center in North Seattle, Washington, the mayor was able to improve water quality by negotiating a deal that enabled daylighting a creek that had been routed through a pipe. The creek is now an amenity for the new condos and senior housing that surrounds it.

As with the three design strategies for retrofitting suburbs, we need layered solutions to deal with all the 21st century challenges as well, says Dunham-Jones. We need to change the metrics of success.