Last week I had the chance to check out progress on part of Kalamazoo’s PlacePlan: a “road diet” on a section of Portage Street, passing through the Edison neighborhood’s historic Washington Square district.

Portage Street had suffered the same fate as numerous urban roads: in the name of carrying the most cars at the fastest speed, the asphalt was widened over time until it squeezed the sidewalks up against the storefronts, contributing to the decline of the businesses in this area and the decay of the buildings.

In August 2014, pedestrians in Washington Square faced traffic zipping around a blind curve, uncomfortable close to the too-narrow sidewalk.

In August 2014, pedestrians in Washington Square faced traffic zipping around a blind curve, uncomfortably close to the too-narrow sidewalk.

As a result of our work with Kalamazoo through the 2014 round of PlacePlans, the city has implemented a light-weight reconfiguration of Portage Street: it now has 3 lanes (one in each direction and a left turn lane) in place of 4.  This pulls traffic away from the curb, making the street less hostile to pedestrians, it pulls cars turning left out of the flow of traffic, reducing rear-end crashes, and it provides room for several blocks for a bike line connecting Washington Square to downtown.  Driving through the area at 5:15pm, when the pavement should be at its busiest, traffic was smooth and there were no significant delays, even though the change is still new and unfamiliar to drivers.

In the "trial" stage of the road change, traffic is pushed away from the curb--even just white paint gives people some breathing room.

In the “trial” stage of the road change, traffic is pushed away from the curb–even just white paint gives people some breathing room.

Right now, the change is a test–essentially just changing the paint and the traffic signal timing–but the city is planning to rebuild the street in a few years.  The trial period will let Kalamazoo figure out whether to continue and improve on the 3-lane version of the road when they rebuild, or go back to the drawing board: either way, they’ll be entering that process with good experience and traffic data.

What’s happening outside the right-of-way is also pretty exciting: the Kalamazoo Land Bank owns several properties in the area, and four once-vacant storefronts have filled up since we delivered their PlacePlan: a fitness studio, sandwich shop, credit union branch, and artisans market inhabit the newly renovated spaces.  While we can’t claim credit for the storefront rehabs–the Land Bank came to the table with these buildings already in-progress–these businesses and those that join them will offer more evidence of the power of coordinated public and private investment to make great places.

This building, vacant a year ago, has had a facelift and hosts three new businesses; the corner space is still under construction, but the building looks great even in the too-early November twilight.

This building, vacant a year ago, has had a facelift and hosts three new businesses; the corner space is still under construction, but the building looks great even in the too-early November twilight.

Kalamazoo’s next step is the farmers’ market charrette coming up November 19-20: as their market bursts at the seams, they’re planning out the next stage of its growth–including how it connects to Washington Square and other areas nearby.

The latest new voice suggesting city centers are the place to be: Fitch Ratings.  In what Joe Cortright calls “maybe the most under-reported story of the year” for urbanists, the investment rating agency shows housing demand shifting towards urban centers “in nearly every city analyzed.”

According to Fitch, downtown home values maintained the advantage throughout the crash and recovery.

According to Fitch, downtown home values maintained the advantage throughout the crash and recovery–and show no sign of slowing down:

Significant demand is returning to city centers following decades of suburban and exurban growth. Since 2000, home prices have grown 50% faster in urban centers than in the broader MSA areas, with population growth trends beginning to favor city centers as well. ‘This demand shift implies that city centers will continue to see growth even where regional prices have been stagnant, such as Atlanta or Chicago,” said Director Stefan Hilts.

More supply will come online with Dan Gilbert's acquisition today of the long-vacant Book Building...but only after years of renovation.

More supply will come online with Dan Gilbert’s acquisition today of the long-vacant Book Building…but only after years of renovation. (photo by Flickr user gab482)

As Cortright points out, this is a powerful signal that the market wants not just more housing in our great urban neighborhoods–it wants more great urban neighborhoods. I previously covered that survey by the National Board of Realtors showing that 25% of Americans are living in single-family homes even though they’d prefer to live in an attached home in a more walkable neighborhoods: the report from Fitch shows people are willing to put their money where their mouths are.

This is why it’s so important that we invest in placemaking, in “Redevelopment Ready” practices, and in transportation choices like transit, biking, and walking. Michigan can’t afford to go slowly when it comes to bringing our supply of great places up to where the demand is.

When my wife and I bought our home, we were hoping to find something like a duplex or condo in walking distance to downtown Ypsilanti–to no avail. While there were dozens of single-family homes available at the time, only one duplex came up in 6 months of looking, and the condos available were all in complexes on major roads towards the edge of town. We ended up in a single-family home as the best-available choice, rather than because it was what we really wanted.

A new study by the National Association of Realtors and Portland State University suggests this is a common problem. Among other topics, their Community & Transportation Preferences Survey of 3,000 adults across the country’s metro areas looked at the homes (and places) people live in currently vs. the homes they’d like to live in.

A full 25% of respondents reported that they currently lived in detached, single-family homes, but would prefer to live in an apartment, townhouse, or condo in a more walkable neighborhood.

NAR_HousingMismatch_July15Even though I’ve personally suffered from this particular failure of the housing market, this number is still surprising and significant: 1 in 4 adults living in our major metro areas would give up their single-family home to live in a more walkable neighborhood.

So why don’t they already live there?  The NAR study doesn’t delve into that question, but it’s a safe bet that lack of available supply plays a role.  The survey shows that nearly half of respondents, across age groups, would prefer an “attached” home in a walkable neighborhood over a single family home that requires more driving.  Yet across Michigan’s metro areas, only about 30% of housing units are attached of any kind, and a large share of those are in locations that could hardly be called “walkable”: massive complexes of bland beige-carpeted apartments sandwiched between strip malls on busy arterial roads are not what these respondents have in mind.

As further evidence of this supply/demand mismatch, where we do have quality multi-family home options in walkable downtowns and neighborhoods, Michigan is grappling with affordability problems: whether Midtown Detroit, downtown Grand Rapids, or downtown Royal Oak, housing options are scarce but highly sought-after, and prices are rising accordingly. Nearest to me, downtown Ann Arbor apartments are now leasing for as much as $2,000 per month, for a single bedroom: even the hundreds of new apartments being built every year can’t seem to make a dent in the pent-up demand for this living option.

While much coverage of the study focuses on millennials, the findings appear to hold up across generational cohorts:

Across generations, about as many Americans want attached homes in walkable locations as want detached homes in conventional developments.

Across generations, about as many Americans want attached homes in walkable locations as want detached homes in conventional developments.

Realtors obviously have a direct role in getting people into the homes they want, and when they say “more and more homebuyers are expressing interest in living in mixed-use, transit-accessible communities,” they’re in a strong position to know what homebuyers want, and how the market is failing them.  Helping to correct this market failure and create more of the places that people wish they were living in is one of the most important outcomes that our placemaking work can have.

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

Read the document at

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, 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.