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A formerly vacant downtown storefront is full of activity during PlacePOP in Allegan.

report thumnail

Read the full report here.

Pop-up retail is a fun and creative way to activate and promote underutilized storefronts. In December 2015, we had the opportunity to do a pop-up retail PlacePOP project with Allegan leaders to create vibrancy, boost foot-traffic, and encourage economic growth in the city’s downtown. Through the work of the Allegan city manager, city staff, elected officials, and a strong group of community and business leaders, Allegan built off an existing downtown celebration and shopping experience, Festive Fridays, to host four pop-up retail spaces through the month of December.

Allegan is a city of about 5,000 people and is no stranger to placemaking. As a 2013 recipient of the League’s PlacePlan grant, the community has a strong relationship with the League and values place-based improvements. Through their PlacePOP experience, communities across the state can understand the impact of pop-up retail and learn important lessons from their experience.

Accomplishments

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Festive Friday visitors purchase goods from PlacePOP vendors in a formerly vacant downtown storefront.

Allegan PlacePOP clearly demonstrates the power of placemaking. Pop-up retail was an opportunity to enhance an already successful event by bringing new energy and excitement to the downtown. After December’s events, community leaders most involved in planning the pop-ups reconvened for a debrief meeting in January 2016. Here, and through one-on-one interviews with key individuals, the stakeholder group discussed the project’s short- and long-term impacts. Stakeholders agreed that they clearly met the expectations identified through the project’s vision and goals, and they identified a number of additional accomplishments:

  • Building owners showcased available storefronts to hundreds of prospective tenants and buyers;
  • Vendors and entrepreneurs tested products and business strategy, built clients, and met like-minded entrepreneurs working towards similar goals;
  • Building owners were able to show their investment and passion for the community while residents had a unique opportunity to get involved in a common effort.

More than anything, Allegan PlacePOP was a clear illustration to the community, visitors, and the state that the city is innovative, collaborative, and focused on place. Many small- and mid-sized communities would never consider implementing a pop-up retail project because they believe pop-ups can only be successful in larger municipalities; clearly that is not the case. This project displays Allegan’s unique focus on placemaking and willingness to creatively collaborate with residents and business owners to achieve a common goal. Shining light on initiatives like PlacePOP can help attract talent and businesses that will contribute to the city’s economic success.

Lessons Learned

Pop-up retail projects can happen anywhere. With Allegan leading the way, other communities can learn from their experiences implement similar projects in their city centers.

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    Festive Friday visitors write what they would love to see in downtown Allegan.

    It takes city leadership to get the project started, but it takes community ownership to get the project completed. Allegan’s city manager is a strong advocate for place and was able to rally the community around a place-focused project. The manager initiated preliminary discussions with the League and acted as host to get the right people in the room as he organized the first community meeting. This is a strong leadership skill, but the more challenging skill was illustrated as he quickly stepped aside to let residents take ownership of the project.

  • Use an external, neutral facilitator to inspire, rally, and bridge new relationships. The project was able to avoid political turbulence with the League, rather than the city, as project manager. The League’s knowledge on placemaking and illustration of examples from across Michigan served as a way to educate and inspire Allegan leaders that was slightly different than the internal perspectives residents hear more frequently at the local level.
  • Agree upon clearly defined project goals and objectives at the beginning of the process. At the very first meeting, the group discussed and agreed on the project’s vision and goals and took on tasks as soon as they left the room. With regular communication and check-ins, leaders were able to carry out responsibilities, while having enough ownership to get creative and take the lead on tasks that most interested them. This got everyone moving in a unified direction and set the tone for what it would take to implement a successful project.
  • Start with the right location and event. To succeed in pop-up retail, there has to be enough foot traffic that make it worthwhile for vendors and building owners. With “shop local” initiatives already in the forefront during the holiday season, Festive Friday proved to be a successful event to build on. Similarly, the location has an important role in the project’s success. Downtown Allegan is walkable, aesthetically pleasing, and safe so people were willing to walk from store to store. A more sprawling, car-focused part of town would likely be less impactful for multiple pop-up vendors and building owners.
  • Have fun. It’s clear that people in Allegan are driven to do what they enjoy; spending time with their neighbors, being creative, and supporting the community they love. This experience is what encouraged the community to step up and take the lead.

Read the full report on Allegan’s PlacePOP here and contact scraft@mml.org for more information about pop-up retail or bringing PlacePOP to your community.

Last week saw Lansing take up bills for a “Historic District Modernization Act”, as well as CityLab weigh in on historic districts’ role in driving up housing prices and limiting affordability. In this context, we can revisit the role of local historic districts in placemaking.  (Spoiler: they’re an important tool!)

Since about 1970, when the Federal and state historic preservation statutes were enacted, 78 cities around Michigan have created districts to support their historic neighborhoods. These efforts provided property owners in those areas a stable and predictable context for investment, often allowing blighted or long-neglected areas to become, over time, some of our communities’ most sought-after neighborhoods. The combination of expertise and oversight provided by Historic District Commissions and staff, as well as Federal tax credits (and state credits, until recently), laid the foundations for these efforts.

Grand Rapids' Cherry Hill area demonstrates how historic districts support the ongoing work of neighborhood reinvestment.

Grand Rapids’ Cherry Hill area demonstrates how historic districts support the ongoing work of neighborhood reinvestment. (Photo courtesy East Hills Council of Neighbors)

I’ve previously written on Grand Rapids’ Heritage Hill and East Hills neighborhoods, which offer great examples of how historic districts support placemaking.  In 1992, residents of the Cherry Hill area of the east hills began the process of forming a district as part of their fight against blight, crime, and absentee property owners. A walk through the neighborhood today, just over two decades later, shows how the district has contributed to creating a great neighborhood that anchors the Wealthy Street and Cherry Street commercial districts. While work definitely remains to be done, many of the homes have been brought back from the brink of destruction by fire or neglect, creating the physical fabric that supports close relationships between neighbors.

The significance is not just aesthetic, but economic. During the real estate roller coaster of the last 10 years, Zillow reports this neighborhood’s average home value has increased by 25%, while the average home value in Grand Rapids as a whole remains 7% below 2006 levels. In the Fairmount Square portion of the East Hills—where another historic district was established in 1999, following Cherry Hill’s example—the economics were strong enough to support the construction of 35 condo townhomes during the middle of the recession, in coordination with the rehabilitation of the adjacent DA Blodgett Home for Children. The success of these neighborhoods for both residents and businesses show how historic districts support economic development efforts—in buildings both new and old.

New townhomes in Grand Rapids' Fairmount Square historic district show how new and historic construction can fit side by side.

New townhomes in Grand Rapids’ Fairmount Square historic district show how new and historic construction can fit side by side.

The Grand Rapids examples also show the weakness in CityLab’s critique.  While that piece targets local historic districts as tools to exclude lower-income residents—and uses an image from the Heritage Hill district to illustrate “pretty house” preservation—that neighborhood hosts Grand Rapids’ densest and most diverse set of housing options.  The home pictured sits on a block whose housing ranges from beautiful historic mansions to modest homes on postage stamp lots, alongside a mix of duplexes, townhomes, carriage barn apartments, and 8 story apartment buildings: hardly the exclusive enclave of single-family homes the author describes.

In this case, as in many of our cities, historic districts include and protect housing in a broad range of styles and price points. And, as the Fairmount Square development shows, can incorporate new development as well. While local districts can be used to reinforce exclusive zoning, they don’t necessarily do so, nor are they as much of a factor as single-family zoning standards, minimum lot sizes, or parking requirements. And to the CityLab concern about historic districts boosting property values, well, that was the hope of the Cherry Hill residents trying to build a neighborhood—bringing property values from the rock bottom of abandonment back up to something near the city and statewide averages.

Older neighborhoods often mix retail storefronts into residential areas, offering the walkable amenities residents want.

Older neighborhoods often mix retail storefronts into residential areas, offering the walkable amenities residents want.

In many cases, our historic districts are pre-war neighborhoods that look a lot like the types of areas that we’ve talked about in our strategic placemaking efforts: small commercial areas with apartments (or the possibility of them) above business uses that front on the sidewalk, and neighborhoods of homes, apartment houses, and small apartment buildings adjacent.  Many of the buzzwords we use in our placemaking work—“compact, walkable mixed-use districts with high connectivity and missing middle housing options” (huh?)—are just a way of saying, “let’s build great new neighborhoods that look and function like these great old neighborhoods.”

In older communities across Michigan, taking care of the good places we already have is the easiest starting point for placemaking—and historic districts are an important foundation for that work.

Downtown-Ann-Arbor-University-of-Michigan-on-Graduation-Day-May-2014-TownGown-(59)-200x300This spring, more than 6,000 undergrads will receive their highly-anticipated diplomas from the University of Michigan; I’m proud to be one of them. For some of these students, several of whom have called Michigan home since childhood, graduation will mark the end of their time in the Wolverine State. Like many Michigan grads who came before them, they’ll take their first-rate education, their soon-to-be-tapped potential, and their dreams for the future elsewhere.

But the scene need not seem so dismal – at least not anymore. Because today, more than ever, many of these students will choose to take their uniquely developed talents, their can-do attitudes, and their passion for their work into cities like Detroit, Grand Rapids, Lansing, Traverse City, and various other communities throughout Michigan.

In recent years, staying in Michigan after graduation seemed the less-glamorous, ‘only if I have no other options’ choice for graduates. However, remaining in-state to contribute to Michigan’s ever-developing and increasingly entrepreneurial landscape is becoming a bold, even renegade option for students hoping to make a difference in their own corners of the world.

I can speak to this developing phenomenon because I’m a product of it. A year ago, I was convinced that the most courageous post-grad move I could make involved packing my bags and relocating to Washington, D.C. Fast forward two semesters and I (like many of my fellow spring graduates) have come to realize that perhaps the most daring and adventurous option is to use the talents I’ve spent the last four years developing to take an active role in Michigan’s reinvention.

Downtown-Ann-Arbor-University-of-Michigan-on-Graduation-Day-May-2014-TownGown-(48)-300x200Michigan’s reinvention is key because, on the whole, millennials have been found to value the difference that they can make in their respective localities. Staying in Michigan allows millennials to pursue not only individual success, but to directly affect their changing and growing communities, something essential to their own personal fulfillment.

Additionally, almost two-thirds of millennials have an interest in starting their own business. As Michigan has shifted focus to building a new economy, new spaces of innovation supporting local entrepreneurs and startups have popped up all over the state’s map. This unique and increasing demand for entrepreneurship in Michigan attracts millennials boasting individual talents and looking for opportunities to use them.

This space to develop professionally, however, would perhaps be less thrilling if it were not mirrored by an equally stimulating space to engage personally. Millennials find a plethora of places in which to pursue their interests outside of work in Michigan, whether those interests are playing sports, watching sports, venturing through nature, or even delving into history and exploring the occasional museum. Millennials seek to create a home for themselves and for their future families; they appreciate the concept of work-life balance, and they’ve found that here in Michigan.

In short, students who stay in Michigan today grasp an incredible opportunity to have a hand in determining what Michigan will become tomorrow. In this atmosphere dedicated to growth, business owners, families, educators, and lawmakers continue to cooperate with the commitment of developing stronger, more vibrant communities in which graduates can prosper – professionally and personally. Because for everything that Michigan has to offer, its future development and success will be determined by its greatest resource – its people.

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Samantha Audia, Michigan Municipal League Intern

SamanthaAudia-150x150Samantha joined the Michigan Municipal League team as an intern this winter, and will graduate from the University of Michigan in the spring with a degree in Political Science and International Studies. Previously, she has worked with several political non-profits in the Washington, D.C. area, and contributed to an array of publications. Samantha calls Garden City home but currently resides in Ann Arbor, and she looks forward to blogging for the League throughout the winter.

knight-cities-challenge-logo-200x227The Knight Foundation has announced the finalists for this year’s Knight Cities Challenge–and the League’s idea – “Permit Corps” –  is among them!  With over 4,500 ideas submitted in the first round, the 158 finalists who have been invited to submit full proposals include 20 finalists from Detroit.  (We’re tied with Philadelphia for the largest number of finalists.)

The Permit Corps would be an intern or fellowship program that would place graduate students in a few neighborhoods in Detroit. They would serve as a combination of technical expert and patient advocate, helping residents and small business owners get projects done.

Maybe a small business owner needs a site plan to show zoning compliance for an expansion: an urban planning student from Wayne State or an architecture student from University of Detroit Mercy could help navigate the zoning ordinance and draft the site plan showing the relevant information. Perhaps a resident wants to renovate their home in a historic district: Eastern Michigan University has one of the country’s leading historic preservation programs, and a student from that program could help the resident evaluate their options and put together materials for the Historic District Commission. Maybe a Spanish-speaking resident wants help filling out permits in English–there are any number of ways that the Permit Corps might be able to help neighborhood residents take care of the paperwork so that they can take care of their projects, as well as easing the burden on city staff.

We’ve primarily targeted the Challenge’s goal of “expand economic opportunity” with this proposal: by providing technical capacity to neighborhood residents. We would complement the city’s own efforts to streamline their internal functions and broaden access to the formal process.

This idea stems in part from my own time in Ypsilanti City Hall, helping people through various city, county, and state permitting processes: no matter how much a city has done to make its processes easy, the zoning ordinance is still a legal document, and presenting to the Planning Commission or Historic District Commission can still be intimidating to people.

And that’s why the League chose to dive into the Challenge with this idea–we know we can’t possibly help every person who’s trying to make something happen in their piece of Detroit, but we hope to model a new interaction between residents and city processes that can be adopted not just across Detroit but in other Knight Cities–or by our communities across the state.