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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.

 

Adelaide-food-festival-bannerAt MLGMA’s Winter Institute in January, keynote speaker Peter Smith energetically and enthusiastically shared his experiences of using placemaking to transform the city of Adelaide, South Australia from ho-hum to a world-class destination.

About five years ago, Smith, CEO of Adelaide City Council, began rethinking the role of government and realized that there was great value in governments operating on a regular basis somewhat like they do in the event of a disaster. He cited the example of the 2011 earthquake that severely damaged Christchurch, New Zealand’s second largest city. Many policies and procedures were ignored in favor of quick decision-making, and community groups arose to fill in the void with creativity and innovation.

That’s the mindset that Smith brought to revitalizing the city of Adelaide. When he assumed the role of CEO of City Council in 2008, many industries were closing, young people were leaving, and the city was seen as boring and not welcoming to business. A city-wide “Picture Adelaide” project solicited feedback from residents and revealed that the council wasn’t viewed as trustworthy and the approval process for projects took far too long. Beyond that, 70 percent of the 4,000 ideas submitted were about improving public spaces. Those are the places that color people’s experience with their city and keep them attached and interested far more than infrastructure improvements.

Splash-Adelaide-2Based on the residents’ feedback – and using the lighter, quicker, cheaper approach to government – Splash Adelaide was born.  The first year, the city budgeted $150,000 for community-led public space projects and eventually got 30 projects off the ground – everything from street markets and skating events to library on the lawn. The projects were so popular with both the community and the council that in the following years, there were 70 and then 100 community-run activations. Last year, there were an impressive 150 projects and 4,000 Splash Adelaide followers on social media

And Splash Adelaide is being noticed and copied all over the world. In 2013, Adelaide was voted as one of Lonely Planet’s top 5 places to visit. In 2013 and 2014, The Economist ranked Adelaide as one of the top 10 livable cities. And perhaps more importantly, young people are recommending Adelaide for its new “vibe” and the majority of the city staff now understand placemaking and what it can accomplish for their city.

For more on Peter Smith’s presentation at the MLGMA Winter Institute, please visit MLGMA’s website.

Placemaker and CEO of Adelaide, Australia Peter Smith is coming to Michigan to speak at the Michigan Local Government Managers Association Winter Institute at the end of the month. Because he’s traveling so far, we figured we better take advantage of his time here with a fun, low-key, networking and information-sharing event in Detroit.1-26 event

Join the League at a networking and idea-mixing event with experts and practitioners who are passionate about building great communities.

Placemaking Happy Hour & Panel Discussion: Monday, January 26 from 4-6 PM at Seva Detroit

RSVP ButtonLook forward to great conversation and a cross disciplinary panel discussion moderated by Michigan Association of Planning Executive Director Andrea Brown. Panelists include:

  • Peter Smith, CEO of Adelaide, Australia
  • Alicia Marion-George, Co-owner of Motor City Java & Tea House
  • Sarida Scott, Executive Director of Community Development Advocates of Detroit
  • Steve Baker, Councilmember for the City of Berkley & IT Strategy and Innovation Lead at DTE Energy

The event is free and open to the public but space is limited so please RSVP here.

The League is pleased to host appetizers and there is a cash bar available. We’ll also be selling our new book, The Economics of Place: The Art of Building Great Communities.

Come for the event, but stay for dinner

Spend the evening in Detroit! Seva has a full dinner menu and there are plenty of restaurants in Midtown and within walking distance of the event, including:

Placemaking is such a buzz word of 2014 – and that’s a good thing! Placemaking awareness has been on the rise for the past few years, but themes, ideas, and policies are now more generally accepted and promoted. Placemaking is something people can relate to, want to talk about, and want to promote, which is great news for Michigan communities.

2014 has been a wonderful year for new research, stories, and perspectives on placemaking, engagement, and talent attraction throughout Michigan and across the globe. As part of the League’s services, we’ve been documenting and cataloguing articles related to our placemaking asset areas to use in presentations, guidebooks, research, and talking points. Here are my top five favorite reports of the year:

Investing In Place, American Planning Association

investing in placeMillennials were certainly a discussion topic of 2014. Articles like What Millennials Want – And Why Cities are Right to Pay Them So much Attention, Millennials & Mobility: Understanding the Millennial Mindset, and the Deloitte Millennial Survey populated newsfeeds. As a millennial, the results didn’t seem that staggering – we care about placemaking, doesn’t everybody? In case some leaders still weren’t getting the picture, the American Planning Association went a step further to explore the similar wants and needs of the country’s two largest population groups: millennials and boomers. It turns out they want the same things. Recommendations to please the largest populations include:

  • Engage residents: 75% of millennials and boomers agree that engaging citizens is essential to rebuilding local economies and creating jobs
  • Prioritize walkability and transit: Fewer than 10% of millennials, gen Xers, and boomers are interested in traditional, auto-dependent suburban living
  • Invest in quality of life: 74% of respondents believe investing in schools, walkability, and transportation is a better way to grow the economy than traditional approaches.

Using findings from this report, community leaders can frame future investments and development plans based on the public’s interests.

The Rise of Innovation Districts, The Brookings Institute

Communities and metro regions across the country are recovering from the Great Recession, but most are still behind their pre-recession peaks. There are some areas, however, that are recovering faster and stronger. According to the report, downtowns where people both live and work grew 77% faster than the country as a whole. Similarly, metro areas with more than 1 million people grew twice as fast than areas with populations under 250,000innovation districts

The report explores all aspects of innovation districts – which Brookings defines as a high density area of entrepreneurs, education and medical institutions, start-ups, and mixed-use developments that are interconnected through transit, technology, and physical proximity. The Rise of Innovation Districts says these districts are where jobs can grow faster, stronger, and more equitably, where density can reduce carbon emissions, and where local governments can generate more tax revenue. The report continues to explore the economic, physical, and networking aspects of how innovations work, as well as how community leaders can spark and scale innovation districts in their own communities.

Even for smaller communities, the report can be used as leverage to promote different areas of placemaking from entrepreneurial incentives, to walkable streets, to efficient transportation options.

State Policies Matter, Michigan Future

state policiesThis report is Michigan-specific, and especially with drama from Michigan’s current lame duck legislature, civic leaders should take a few minutes to read or re-read this paper. State Policies Matter describes how Michigan and Minnesota were once very similar states, with similar statewide policies and economies. Since 1990, however, Michigan and Minnesota have been growing more and more dissimilar: Minnesota now ranks 11th highest in the country in per capita income while Michigan is ranked 35th, and Minnesota’s unemployment and poverty rates have declined but Michigan’s have stayed about the same or worsened. This report seeks to explain the growing differences between the two states through policy decisions state and local leaders have made over recent decades. Major differences include the following:

  • Income taxes, business taxes, sales taxes, and gas taxes are all significantly higher in Minnesota, which means per capita state and local taxes are $1,000 – $5,000 higher than in Michigan.
  • These higher tax revenues allow Minnesota’s government to invest more in important priorities. For example, Michigan spends $1,447/person on k-12 education, while Minnesota spends $2,067/person. Michigan spends $223/person on transportation, while Minnesota spends $465/person. And Michigan spends $119/person in local government aid, while Minnesota spends $465/person.
  • Social policies are also more equitable in Minnesota than in Michigan. For example, the state allows same-sex marriages, allows affirmative action for college admissions, and allows undocumented high school graduates to receive in-state tuition at state universities.

This report can be seen as a timely warning to our state and local leaders to reconsider some current policy priorities.

The Equity Solution, PolicyLink

This fall, PolicyLink launched the National Equity Atlas, an online resource of demographics and economic data across the US with policy implications focused on racial equality. This data highlights the persistent, and often growing gaps, between the rich and poor, and white and non-white populations. Some important findings include:

  • equity atlasRacial economic inclusion could annually add $2 trillion to the national economy
  • 66% of racial income gap is due to wage differences, and only 34% is due to employment differences
  • Every region in the country would be stronger with racial inclusion. Potential annual gains range from $287 million to $510 billion in the nation’s 150 largest metro regions.

Users can manipulate data on the National Equality Atlas site to represent findings from their state or region. Michigan can be looked at as a whole or in the Ann Arbor, Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, and Lansing regions.

The report also highlights policy recommendations for closing economic gaps between racial lines. Some examples include:

  • Invest in transit and other infrastructure projects to improve connectivity and create jobs
  • Leverage anchor institutions to grow new business in underinvested areas
  • Raise the minimum wage through local living wage ordinances or statewide initiatives
  • Remove barriers of employment, like prohibiting credit checks for job applicants and increasing citizenship for immigrants.

City Open Data Policies, National League of Cities

open dataMunicipalities collect and store a ton of information but most of it just sits there. Recently, excitement around open data has grown through initiatives from Code for America and other organizations – if there’s data, let people access it, manipulate it, and see what they can come up with. Open data is simply “data that can be freely used, reused, and redistributed by anyone” and is a pretty new idea for cities around the world. This report highlights lessons learned so far from 5 cities who have implemented open data policies and outlines recommendations and resources for communities looking to implement something similar.

Jackson is the only Michigan community, so far, to venture into the possibilities of open data. With work from city leaders, student interns, and national institutional advisors, Jackson has already adopted an open data ordinance and is currently working on creating an online portal. Communities interested in learning more are encouraged to contact Jackson and take recommendations from the NLC report:

  • Find leadership for open data initiatives
  • Commit to open data through legislation and formal policies
  • Allocate resources to open data initiatives – although it’s low cost, the best policies have appropriate staffing and budgeting
  • Rely on experts to provide technical expertise and customer service for online platforms since municipalities often don’t have the in-house resources readily available

So what are you supposed to do with these five reports?

Read them, share them, and use them to make decisions in your community. And if you want more light reading for the holiday break, just let me know! Since April, we have been cataloging interesting articles, reports, and case studies related to placemaking. So far we have about 200 in our database, so there’s plenty to keep you busy.

Looking forward to another year of research, placemaking, and community building!