We know that traditional zoning and development codes, as applied by nearly every one of our hundreds of members across Michigan, can be harmful to building strong, prosperous communities. We have major statewide initiatives to support locals in wrestling their regulations around to something that does what they want—Redevelopment Ready Communities to help identify and clear away procedural obstacles that prevent good development, and the MIplace partnership’s ongoing focus on form-based approaches that support the creation of great places.

So why has progress been so slow—why do rules that actively hinder the development that we say we want persist in most of our cities and villages?  Last week, we hosted a workshop that connected five of our cities with a team of national development code-writing experts convened by Congress for the New Urbanism to dig into this question.

Together, the group cnu_action_shottalked through the cities’ development priorities, and what code-related barriers stood in the way of success on these issues. While this working session was just one part of a larger effort by CNU to support national reform, a few observations stuck out to me.

  • Better development codes don’t have to be via a full scale “Form-Based Code.” The starting point of the conversation was how to streamline adoption of FBCs, as the best tool for building the places we want. Considering the limited resources (political, staff time, financial) of most of our communities, though, incremental improvements to existing, traditional zoning may allow more progress.

    Local staff can look to the Lean Code Tool for tactics to apply locally, or may consider implementing a FBC only for a single key district, rather than community-wide. In any case, the goal is to increase the attention the regulations pay to form, reducing the emphasis on separation of uses.

  • Prioritize—don’t try to fix everything. Even the largest city in our focus group, with the most staff capacity, said they were overwhelmed by the scale of their code reform needs. (When asked to bring a priority need to focus on, they brought six.) Focusing time and resources to make the rules work better in a few important places within the community can be more effective than trying to fix everything at once.

    Communities looking to undertake code reform should focus attention on strengthening their traditional downtown (if they have one), on areas facing heavy development pressure (to ensure that interest supports local placemaking needs), and on neighborhood centers (especially in low-income or minority neighborhoods where support is needed to correct past disinvestment).

  • Residential areas are difficult. The planning profession has done a spectacular job of convincing people that a neighborhood should be made up exclusively of single-family, owner-occupied houses. As a profession, we’ve admitted that we were wrong, and that we’ve done a lot of damage by imposing that norm on traditional neighborhoods through zoning ordinances, and we have tools for walking back some of those mistakes.
    Permitting fourplexes is an easier conversation when you can point to examples a neighborhood already has.

    Permitting missing middle types is an easier conversation when you can point to examples a neighborhood already has.

    But old habits are hard to shift, especially when working with residents whose homes are both quality of life and investment. When identifying priorities, post-war subdivisions may not be on the list in most cities—instead, we should think about repairing downtown-adjacent traditional neighborhoods. These are both the places that already have precedent for missing middle housing choices and small businesses alongside single-family houses, and where conventional zoning has created holes in the neighborhood fabric.

  • Finally, communities need good examples. Nearly all the specific needs that our panel of communities brought to the national resource team were issues for which known-good tools or approaches already exist. The difficulty is in sharing that knowledge across our 500+ member communities, especially to the staff that are wearing several different hats and spread too thinly to search out those tools.

This last observation is where the League has the clearest role. We’ve been very successful in spreading awareness of placemaking to our membership over the past few years, but communities still need good, on-the-ground examples of, say, how to allow new homes that fit onto historic 33-foot-wide lots, or how to provide for more missing middle housing options without fear that college student housing will saturate the neighborhood.

I’m definitely looking forward to further work with the CNU team, as well–thanks to Matt from DPZ, Karen from Opticos, Susan from Placemakers, Marcy from Urbsworks, and Mary from Farrell-Madden for three days of making my head spin with their expertise.

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Gem Theater

Detroit was at the heart of CNU 24 last week!

For the past two years, the League partnered with Congress for the New Urbanism to bring their 24th international convention to our doorstep. League staffers held positions on the host committee and participated in legacy charrettes for four Metro Detroit neighborhoods, all in preparation for last week. That’s when experts in urban planning, design, architecture, and related disciplines gathered from around the globe to learn from each other and – in this case – discover the story of Detroit’s transformation.

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Detroit Opera House

I’m a native Detroiter and have seen the city go through some tough times, but I was truly impressed with the beauty, vibrancy, and positive energy I encountered. I was doubly-impressed when I heard the enthusiastic exclamations of CNU attendees from as far away as Ecuador and Australia. “The Opera House is gorgeous!” “I can’t wait to ride the People Mover!” “Campus Martius is so cool!” “Detroit is much nicer than I expected!”

For four days, the schedule was jam-packed with sessions, workshops, forums, and tours. Participants could head to the beautiful Gem Theater to learn about the principles of new urbanism from Andres Duany, one of the founding members of Congress for the New Urbanism. Walk across the street to the spectacular Detroit Opera House to hear about Detroit’s history and revitalization or how new forms of transportation are changing the way people move around their cities. Or hop on a tour bus and experience the wonders of downtown Detroit architecture, America’s best small city (Ann Arbor), Birmingham’s new urban downtown, or Windsor’s Old Sandwich Towne, one of the oldest established communities in Ontario.

Evenings were full of activity, too, including Thursday’s Charter Awards ceremony, which recognized exemplary work in architectural, landscape, urban, and regional design. Two Detroit-based companies – Bedrock Detroit and Hamilton Anderson Associates – won the grand prize for the design of their Brush Park project.  At the ceremony, the 2016 Congress Legacy Project teams also presented their final reports.

Legacy Projects

Hazel-Park-150x130 Vernor-Crossing-150x130 Grandmont-Rosedale-150x130 Pontiac-150x130
Hazel Park Vernor Crossing Grandmont-Rosedale Pontiac

All the sessions were as varied in topic as they were in location, but I found that a common theme ran through many of them: putting people first. We were reminded of an important Jane Jacobs quote: “People make cities and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans.”

In a session on urbanism and sustainability, Kaid Benfield, senior counsel for environmental strategies at Placemakers, emphasized that we need to aspire to build places people love or they won’t be sustained. In a session on new transportation options, Russell Preston, design director of Principle Group, advised the audience that they should think about people and place first and weave transportation options around them. In a session on the revitalization of Detroit’s neighborhoods, Quincy Jones, executive director of the Osborn Neighborhood Alliance, shared that people are committed to their neighborhoods and will fight for them.

Be-The-Change-300x200But perhaps most importantly, in a session on Detroit’s food and food justice movement, Devita Davison, marketing and communications director for FoodLab Detroit, passionately told the audience that Detroit has its problems, but Detroiters also have hope. It’s up to all of us to be the change we want to see.

 

Last week something pretty cool happened: 200 people attended a community visioning workshop in Vassar, MI. The city has a population of about 2,600, so a 7% turnout is a success worth celebrating.pavilion

This visioning event was pretty unlike most organized through a traditional charrette. When I first sat down with the local steering committee as part of our PlacePOP initiative, leaders said they wanted to host an event people actually wanted to come to. They named the project Vassar Vision and decided to host their first event as a “Taste & Talk” to combine two things most people love: food & talking! The Taste & Talk was held on the project site and had barbeque, ice cream floats, games, and plenty of social time. Ronald McDonald was even there.

There is a lot that went into the event, and there’s still a lot to come. However, here’s a quick look at what made the Taste & Talk so successful:

The Place: Ready for Change

Corner Deli is opening downtown Vassar this summer and owners gave out free samples during the Taste & Talk.

Corner Deli is opening downtown Vassar this summer and owners gave out free samples during the Taste & Talk.

Vassar is about two square miles of Tuscola County, located about 15 minutes east of Frankenmuth. Like almost every Michigan community, Vassar lost people, industry, and business in the crash and is working hard to rebuild what was once there. But they don’t just stop there; residents want Vassar to be better than it ever was.

What’s noticeable about Vassar is that people seem excited and ready for change. At the Taste & Talk, my colleagues and I heard zero negative comments. When was the last time that happened at your community meeting? (I’m sure there were a few naysayers present, but we certainly didn’t hear them.)

This past October, council hired a new city manager, Brian Chapman, and encouraged him to go big. He’s young, smart, and off to a strong start in the community. Vassar is also experiencing a pretty unique boom in their downtown. Six new businesses have just opened or are about to open on the same small downtown strip. Residents are thrilled to have a new downtown boutique, coffee shop, and restaurant and they want to make sure these businesses are here to stay. After seeing downtown businesses close in the past, people who love Vassar are eager to step up and do what they can to make sure these businesses succeed.

The Project: Building Momentum, Generating Ideas, Expanding Capacity

After seeing information on the League’s PlacePOP program, Chapman invited me to lead a placemaking workshop this past February. During the workshop, about 30 local leaders learned about placemaking and brainstormed how Vassar can better prioritize place. Attendees broke off into discussion groups and every group identified the same location as an area in need for some TLC. I’ve actually never seen that happen before.

Attendees brainstormed hundreds of ideas during the event.

Attendees brainstormed hundreds of ideas during the event.

The T. North Pavilion area is adjacent to downtown and encompasses a pavilion, play structure, gigantic parking lot, river, drain, and a few miscellaneous buildings mostly used for storage. The pavilion gets some use throughout the year for hockey tournaments, basketball, farmers market, and concert series, and the play structure gets used by kids and young families in the warmer months. The rest mostly just sits there.

When every workshop group identified this area as a top priority, the city took action. They hired the League as project manager to act as a neutral, outside facilitator and to prevent already over-worked city staff from having to manage a new project. Chapman put together a foundational steering committee to guide and make decisions on the project, and the steering committee continues to grow as more and more stakeholders get excited and involved.

Vassar Vision, carried out from late March through September, is an engagement-based process that will develop a concept design and programming plan for the T. North Pavilion area. The project also serves as an important way to unify the community, have fun, and find new leaders who can take the lead on current and future community-wide initiatives.

The People: The Most Important Part

Rebel Soul opened downtown Vassar this spring and gives residents and visitors a unique shopping experience.

Rebel Soul opened downtown Vassar this spring and gives residents and visitors a unique shopping experience.

As in every community, there are some incredible people who make up Vassar. Sandy Keys, for example, is an elderly woman almost solely responsible for getting all nine of the Taste & Talk’s food vendors to host a free tasting table. Although Sandy spent May traveling the country for her grandchildren’s graduations, baptisms, and more, she never stopped doing outreach for the event. “I’m just a volunteer,” Sandy tells people, but it’s clear she’s a lot more than that.

Star Filkins recently opened her boutique, Rebel Soul, in downtown Vassar. Star and her husband moved back to Vassar to be closer to their family as they raise their kids but the transition back home was harder than they expected. As a young mom who had lived in many other places across the country, Star felt there wasn’t much in Vassar for her. She decided to open her shop because she wanted to start building community for herself and for people like her. “This is where I live, where I work, and where I’m raising my children,” Star said. “I’ve seen how awesome other places are and I want Vassar to be like that.”

The owner of Vassar Theatre gave out free popcorn during the event.

The owner of Vassar Theatre gave out free popcorn during the event.

Andreas Fuchs re-opened the downtown Vassar Theatre late last year, which now acts as an important downtown anchor. Andreas thinks of his theatre as more of a gathering place than a movie theatre. “It’s very clear to me that theatre is about community,” he said. “Yes it’s also about movies but it’s more about people. People see movies!” Andreas brings free popcorn just about wherever he goes and hosts costume parties, giveaways, and discussions based on the moves the theatre shows. It’s people like Andreas, Star, and Sandy who make the community what it is.

The Taste & Talk event was both fun and effective, and it happened because the steering committee has ownership and decision-making power over the project. Andreas, Star, and Sandy don’t care about charrettes, they care about their community. And they, along with the rest of the steering committee, hosted an event that was right for Vassar.

I’m looking forward to seeing our design consultants work their magic as they review the hundreds of ideas attendees generated about the use and aesthetics of the space. We’ll be back doing more creative engagement in August as part of Vassar’s Riverfest. I’m guessing it will be another unique and impactful event!

Visit Placemaking.MML.org/PlacePOP for more information on the PlacePOP program. Stay updated with Vassar’s project by joining their Facebook group.

Hazel Park 5 around table.For the past two years, several of us at the League have had the privilege of participating on the CNU24 Local Planning Committee with a passionate group of urbanists.  As the one clear voice for cities and villages of Michigan, the League is in a unique position to reach out across the state to our members to bring awareness to CNU and illustrate the common vision and goals both organizations share in building great communities.

With the annual CNU Congress fast approaching,  there have been several events leading up to the conference, including the Legacy Charrettes.  We made sure that staff attended the multi day workshops at its various stages, so that we could help support and create some buzz for these projects.  The first one I attended was the Hazel Park project.  Along with two of my colleagues, we came in on the third day of the “reveal” which followed two intensive days of public input and work.  My colleague, Matt Bach, attended the first day of this workshop, so check out his recap.

The anticipation of the crowd of local leaders, residents, and business owners was palpable.  Moule & Polyzoides, a firm of architects and urbanists out of Pasadena, California, along with Planners, Bob Gibbs, Peter Swift, and John Zanette, led this enthusiastic group during the three day workshop.

Hazel Park crowd around tableThe first day they shared a big vision of creating a walkable and connected downtown for Hazel Park.  The goal was to make people a priority over cars; leverage the existing buildings and open space, and enhance the quality of life.  Street calming, landscaping, and adding several gateways into the city would all play a role. Two days later, this collective vision came into focus as a plan was presented to make a place to create a pedestrian oasis and revitalize their downtown. This would be accomplished by creating three distinct districts of the downtown:  the Culinary District would be their town center, the Civic Center, where city hall is located, and the Arts District, that would include the conservation of buildings.  Although these seem like lofty goals, they are realistic ones.  Simple modest changes can be a good place to start and can begin to have a huge impact.

Hazel Park plan on tableJeff Campbell, Assistant City Manager and Planning and Economic Development Director of Hazel Park expressed his view of the process. “It has been an amazing experience working with CNU as planning and economic development coordinator and I have been humbled and stunned by the citizen participation and how much they care about Hazel Park.”

Will Herbig, CNU Program Director said, “This is just not about Hazel Park – it’s about the conversations, ideas, and a model for southeast Michigan.  I couldn’t be happier.”

Join us, along with over 1500 participants from around the world, in Detroit, June 8-11. There will be a feast of learning opportunities and experiences for anyone interested in cities and you will also have the opportunity to see the finished design product of all four of the charrettes!