Although there was lots of activity outside on a beautiful warm spring Sunday afternoon in Southwest Detroit, it was inside the Cristo Rey high school where some of the real excitement was taking place.

Vernor Crossing 1

Vernor Crossing is one of four Congress of New Urbanism (CNU) Legacy Charrettes – hands-on public design events – that were held in Detroit, Pontiac, and Hazel Park, last week. This work, called “Building affordable and market rate housing in Southwest without displacement,” is being done as a lead up to CNU24. My colleague, Rob Ferrari and I attended the last day of the Vernor Crossing workshop to see the culmination of two days of hard work that included significant public input from the neighborhood residents. This was led by Dhiru Thadani from Washington D.C. with support from NederveldZimmerman/Volk Associates and City Form Detroit. My colleague, Luke Forrest, attended the first day of the workshop discussion, so check out his blog, which set the stage.

Southwest Detroit is ripe for change. Home to a diverse and immigrant population, it is made up of artists, entrepreneurs and crafts people. Local leaders and residents were brought together to envision  a transformation of an area that would potentially become much more pedestrian friendly, provide a more diverse housing stock, enhance existing businesses to attract new businesses, and create more open green space for recreational activities. To achieve these goals, several tangible recommendations are being proposed.  Here are some of the ideas that are beginning to lay the groundwork:

  • Reroute truck traffic
  • Open up and repair Livernois and Military streets
  • Identify vacant sites that can be transformed into various activities
  • Renovate the Public Works building (which would act as a town center) to create an arts and culture center; put in 500 housing types (5 year plan – 100 per year) which would include apartments, single family home; create a playground and soccer field; civic space for recreational activities; farmer’s market
  • Provide a diversity of housing through rehabilitation and new – carriage houses, bungalows, single family, row houses, apartments, cottages
  • Provide free WiFi; encase antenna tower and use as a landmark.

These ideas and concepts will be shaped into a cohesive design plan and unveiled during the CNU in Detroit. Optimism filled the room for all the potential that hung in the air.  Of course, it will take a few years to accomplish many of these changes, but there are incremental steps that can be taken that will have huge impact. Participating in the workshop, Steve Maun, Principle and Founder of LeylandAlliance LLC, said that rerouting the trucks alone will already be a major improvement and smaller scale physical changes will begin to attract developers.

Be sure and check back in June as my colleagues and I continue to follow the progress of all four of the Legacy Charrettes.

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

 

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.

 

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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.