Okay, you’re right. It costs the earth to build new in Michigan or do a significant rehab. But don’t immediately rush to load up the U-Haul and venture off to cheaper climes. All is not lost. The summers are too good here in Michigan, our quality of life is outstanding, we have some of the most highly rated universities in the country, and you’ll really want to hold onto your stake here once you read up on climate change. If you do your research, you’ll also find that it’s not necessarily any less expensive in most places elsewhere. At least for locations that folks might want to choose, and in many cases, you’ll find that costs of living are higher.

Now that we have examined some of the underlying factors contributing to increased construction costs, and determined that staying in Michigan is still a pretty good bet, let’s address some of the challenges facing communities that reflect these factors and provide some strategies for successfully pushing back into the market.

Ypsi_Cycle_Rehab_2018

The former Ypsi Cycle building in downtown Ypsilanti, undergoing a complete gut and rebuild.

Strategy One:
Acknowledge that construction, new or rehab, is going to be expensive.

The first step is always to admit there is a problem. We have all heard the grumblings: “New construction is so expensive, developers are building only luxury lofts to turn a profit.” As discussed in a recent Strong Towns article, acknowledging that something is expensive is not necessarily a criticism. It is, however, a requirement for realistically tackling the problem that even when new housing units are created, they are often out of reach for working Michiganders.

Prioritization of supports to incentivize new workforce housing by reducing land acquisition costs and providing predevelopment technical legwork can help set the stage for the creation of new missing middle housing units. The Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s Redevelopment Ready Communities (RRC) program aims to help get cities prepared to attract and accommodate appropriately scaled development in the heart of cities, with built-in walkability and connections to existing community amenities. The League has provided several cities with predevelopment assistance through this program, with success stories reported out on our Developing Great Places page.

We cannot make building cheaper. In fact, we should advocate for lasting quality of construction in city cores regardless of occupants because of the value of creating a durable building stock which can pivot in use over time. We can, however, also focus on shifting costs such as utility hookups, environmental remediation, site prep, and even in some cases, architectural design work, to public entities to remove barriers for desired development formats in targeted locations in our existing downtowns. We can lower costs to purchase municipally owned vacant or under capitalized buildings. We can incentivize historic rehab of aging building stock with the re-establishment of the Michigan Historic Tax Credit and the upcycling of our aging industrial and commercial buildings to housing use.

As advocated by the National Development Council, we need to persist in clarify public interest in targeted growth, which could be alleviated with the easing of public bonding limitations and the promotion and expansion of housing-focused CDCs. Another tack is to watch as Michigan’s community capital investment scene continues to grow and expand while explicitly voicing our interest in local investment opportunities underwritten by local people, as enabled by Michigan’s MILE Legislation.

In the meantime, while such policies and instruments are being built, we can keep working our local economic development networks to convince those with the cash to free up capital to invest and traditional banking institutions to give developers the financing instruments they need to do the projects we want.

Strategy Two:
Make friends with people who know how to build stuff. Then scaffold your way up and support and advocate for skilled trades training programs.

Get it? “Scaffold” your way up? It was just too good of a joke to plaster over.

Every builder must balance the price of materials with the cost of time and labor. In some cases, the investment is in time and experience through apprenticeship programs and on-the-job training. Even a simple bathroom remodel or rec room addition can bring into stark light the lack of skilled tradespeople in some Michigan markets. Many experts departed our communities in the dark days of the Recession and the gap left behind has not yet been filled.

According to advice from the Incremental Development Alliance, a group of developers working to promote small-scale construction and rehab in existing city centers, working with local community partners for a common vision goes a long way toward cultivating a culture of slow and steady growth in small and medium sized contractor companies.

As shown by IncDev’s work in several cities across the United States, this type of approach works best when projects are patterned after regionally familiar building forms to fit into existing neighborhoods where housing is wanted by the community and called out as desirable in updated master plans. These projects are just-right-sized to get done by smaller crews and provide relatively stable and predictable demand for growing a construction crew one person at a time. And these types of projects tend also to fall into the not-quite-so-scary scale when seeking approval through local planning commissions. In the case of Chattanooga, Tennessee, a rapidly growing tech hub, “city administrators are collaborating to find ways to fast-track the proposed Missing Middle housing and minimize some of the risks and expenses which disproportionately stymie small multi-unit developments.”

Once developer confidence is built through municipal support and market analysis, sometimes all it takes is to start with one experienced contractor. Bring them in to get started with one site, gradually add team members, and set up a pipeline of projects to keep them in steady work.

Strategy Three:
Know your community’s data and demonstrate pent up demand.

Our state’s demographics are rapidly changing. In 2018, according to the American Community Survey, Michigan’s average household size is only about 2.5 people. Only about 22% of all Michigan households include children 18 years old or younger. To parse it another way, people in their 20s and 30s are choosing to prioritize education or careers and delay or entirely opt out of traditional marriage partnerships and childrearing. In older age brackets, we have a growing segment of longer-living, healthy seniors over the age of 65, many of whom are no longer partnered due to loss, divorce, or choice.

What does this mean? While nearly half of Michigan’s households have two spouses or partners living together, many households have only one adult. Even if you don’t want to live in a small apartment or a modest condo, many people do.

We are experiencing a rising demand for smaller housing options because people simply don’t desire or cannot afford that much space, but they do want to be connected to others in walkable neighborhoods. While a four bed, three bath Colonial with a pool and a 20-minute drive to town may be perfect for some of our households, the data tells us that large-lot, car-dependent housing options are abundant in many markets yet are probably not the best fit for the majority.

As we continue to witness these changes in our communities, in the lives of our own families and friends, we must track and present data on the pent-up demand for the creation of affordable and middle-income housing in walkable, real places. And if they’re connected to public transit to reduce car usage, all the better. When we think of who wants these kinds of housing – your 27-year-old daughter who finally finished school and just getting her career off the ground; your best friend who would rather pour her heart into being a pet parent than manicuring her lawn; your 70-year-old dad who has chosen to buck tradition and not decamp to Florida like his parents did; or maybe just you – we can and will respond to these needs with a more personal urgency.

Keep Thinking About the Why.

By setting proactive public policies and developing incentives to prioritize the expansion of these market segments, we’ll not only be taking care of our economy, we’ll be caring for the people we care about, too.

Yet with these factors in mind, we can continue to focus our efforts on building collaborative relationships with all involved to mitigate the underlying cost factors and make these projects not only worthy of investment but also creatively and appropriately financed. We can accomplish these goals by seeking more accessible financing instruments, encouraging reasonable expansion, holding a focus on appropriate density, elevating examples of right-sized builds, promoting the cultural and ecological sense of building reuse, and helping demonstrate the need for growth in skilled trades programs to carry out this work.

In the end, the most important thing to remember is that when we engage in conversations about the high cost of construction, both new builds and rehabs, there are many reasons behind those price tags. And there is also a myriad of reasons why quality construction needs to take place when thoughtfully building quality 21st Century Communities.

Read more on how to plan and do these kinds of projects in our Placemaking How-To toolkit at:  http://placemaking.mml.org/how-to/

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.