Earlier this week, the city of Ypsilanti released an RFQ seeking developers for one of the sites they identified as a priority through the Redevelopment Ready Communities process. The League created the RFQ document with the support of Beckett & Raeder, Inc., as part of a project, funded by MSHDA through the MML Foundation, to advance placemaking planning into implementation.

Taking plans off the shelf

The first of our development RFQ pilots, recently sent out by the city of Ypsilanti.

The first of our development RFQ pilots, recently sent out by the city of Ypsilanti.

“Planners can make all the plans they want, but it takes developers to execute them.”

This quote on the relationship of city planners to developers in creating communities has stuck with me as much as anything else from planning school. That’s why I’m enthusiastic about these RFQs.

When a community undertakes a PlacePlan, or prepares a residential target market analysis, or undertakes any kind of planning process, they are defining their desired outcomes; a community that goes through RRC then lays the groundwork to ensure they’re not hindering their desired outcomes.

To accelerate the actual completion of these plans, though, the community needs to clearly and actively communicate their expected outcomes, and the work they’ve done. This is the role our RFQs can play.

Traditional stumbling blocks

This project began from a less specific desire to accelerate developments that contribute to a local sense of place, and we arrived at supporting locals with RFQs after conversations with some of our PlacePlans alums, developer partners, and MSHDA and MEDC staff about why things hadn’t worked in the past. Some themes included,

  • Developers often aren’t familiar with the work communities have done—traditional real estate listings don’t elevate that groundwork or communicate the vision.
  • Communities sometimes default to their known procurement processes when trying to communicate with developers, burying the lede under reams of legal requirements and disclosure documents. “Every page has to keep you reading, and if you see it’s 100 pages, you’re not even going to pick it up,” was feedback we got from a broker’s perspective.
  • Local staff don’t have good channels for getting word out about their development priorities: often, they only know a small pool of local builders (or may even lack that!) and don’t know where to find others. “We created an RFQ and put it on our website and sent a press release to the local paper—we don’t know if anybody saw it.” said one city.
  • Similarly, smaller developers may only know the opportunities in their own backyards, and not those just a few communities down the road; larger developers may only have a limited set of “high-profile” places on their radar.

Improving the outreach

The approach we’re taking has two parts, to help address these gaps.

First, we identified a few communities that have been through the Redevelopment Ready certification process, that had identified priority sites in downtown or adjacent neighborhood settings, had done good place-based planning (through PlacePlans or otherwise), had a target market analysis to demonstrate opportunity, and, importantly, had staff capacity to engage.

We are working with those communities to digest the work they’ve already done and tease out the important bits that relate to the target site. We’ve engaged Beckett & Raeder to both prepare concept site plans that provide visual cues of what the community is looking for, and to prepare site-specific fiscal analyses that test those visions against market data—can the community reasonably expect their vision to be buildable as-is, or should they expect a financial gap that will need incentives? And we’re packaging that work into an attractive RFQ document that (hopefully) grabs interest.

BRI prepared three concept site plans for the site, which we vetted with staff and the appointed bodies (Planning Commission and Historic District Commission) that will need to approve any development. The concepts are provided in the RFQ as examples of the city's desired development, but kept general enough to allow the developer creativity.

BRI prepared three concept site plans for the site, which we vetted with staff and the appointed bodies (Planning Commission and Historic District Commission) that will need to approve any development. The concepts are provided in the RFQ as examples of the city’s desired development, but kept general enough to allow the developer creativity.

Second, we’re working on the pipeline issue with support from a number of partners. Both the Michigan chapter of Urban Land Institute and the Home Builders Association of Michigan are promoting these RFQs to their membership, and we’ve also compiled our own contact list of firms active in placemaking-friendly development around the state—over 100 so far, and we’ll continue to expand that. Looking past these initial projects, MEDC has identified a need to expand the developer community active in any given region, through both networking and training, and we’re working with them to help target that need.

As we start to get feedback, we expect we might need to refine either what goes into the RFQ documents, or our approach to targeting developers. Our goal is to figure out a few things that work, and provide some guidance to all of our members about how they can take advantage of it to see their own placemaking goals take shape.  Stay tuned!

At this year’s Convention, we invited Scott TenBrink from the University of Michigan’s School of Information’s Citizen Interaction Design program to speak about engagement, and specifically online or app-based engagement tools. The CID team has spent the past few years working in Jackson, where students have tested innovative projects and learned valuable lessons about implementing in-person and online engagement strategies. With more than 50 people in attendance and great conversation after the session, we definitely thought the information was worth sharing with a wider League audience.

Engagement means different things to different people and there are many diagrams that try to identify and illustrate the many types of engagement. Scott shared a unique diagram, below, that he and his CID team created. Click here to see a larger version of the diagram.

engagement-pyramid-text

“It is a work in progress,” he said, and they’re still playing around with the hierarchy, but I think the types of engagement available to municipalities are identified well here.

Selecting an Online Engagement Platform

Many municipalities are eager to try out online engagement tools and apps as a way to enhance in-person engagement opportunities. Scott cautions that online engagement should never replace in-person strategies, but should only enhance other methods.

There are a lot of online tools available, and the list is changing daily. To give municipalities an idea of where to start, the CID team created this comparison table, which identifies more than 25 online platforms and the type of engagement they offer.

Scott also shared a list of recommendations and questions local leaders should consider before selecting an online engagement tool:

  1. Research your audience – who are they and how do they want to engage?
  2. Identify the type of engagement you want – use the pyramid diagram as a guideline.
  3. Identify your available resources (data, communication channels, staff, etc.) – review the process and resources necessary to implement your preferred engagement method. Do you have capacity and organizational infrastructure to implement properly?
  4. Start with a prototype – test out a product before you spend a lot of money. Make sure it’s doing what you hoped and you have the resources available to properly implement the method.

Continuing the Conversation

Many at Scott’s session were interested in learning more from their peers about online engagement tools they’ve tried and lessons learned from the experience. If you’ve tried out a product and are interested in being part of a user group discussion, let me know! The League would be happy to host and facilitate peer-to-peer workshops to explore topics like this further. Should we host a small event, start a Facebook group, or hold a video conference chat? Let us know how we can help keep the conversation going! Feel free to contact me at scraft@mml.org to let me know how you want to be involved.

Bob Gibbs discusses the economic development potential in Pontiac during the CNU Legacy Project Charrette Friday, April 15.

Bob Gibbs discusses the economic development potential in Pontiac during the CNU Legacy Project Charrette Friday, April 15.

The economic development potential for the city of Pontiac is tremendous. Just how great? How about a demand of up to 211,700 square feet of new retail and restaurant development producing up to $55.2 million in annual sales. That’s how great, said Pontiac native Bob Gibbs, urban planning and retail consultant director for Gibbs Planning Group of Birmingham.

“By 2021, this economic demand could generate up to $58 million in gross sales,” Gibbs said. “And that’s a conservative estimate.”

This message presented by Gibbs and others in downtown Pontiac Friday night came during the first of three days of an intensive design and planning program called, a Congress Legacy “Charrette” Project. It’s being done in the city by the Congress of the New Urbanism (CNU). It’s one of four such charrettes happening this week in conjunction with the international CNU 24 conference coming to Detroit in June. The other three charrettes were in Hazel Park, April 12-14; and April 15-17 in two Detroit neighborhoods – Grandmont-Rosedale and Vernor Crossing.

Pontiac Mayor Deirdre Waterman and Planner Galina Tachieva speak at the CNU Legacy Project Charrette in Pontiac Friday, April 15.

Pontiac Mayor Deirdre Waterman and Planner Galina Tachieva speak at the CNU Legacy Project Charrette in Pontiac Friday, April 15.

The work done at the charrettes will be presented to planners, architects, urban designers and municipal leaders at the CNU 24 in Detroit June 8-11, 2016. For details on the conference go to CNU24.org.

But the keys to making this development happen in Pontiac won’t be easy. Gibbs explained capitalizing on this economic growth potential will require policy changes, improved marketing and a redesign of the traffic layout and parking configuration in the downtown area, Gibbs said.

Should these changes be made, Gibbs’ market analysis showed the city could support an additional 45,000 square feet of department store merchandise, 38,600 square feet of grocery store goods, nearly 36,000 square feet of special food and specialty food sales, 16,300 in gift store square footage, 14,200 square feet in pharmacy, 12,700 square feet in bars, breweries and pubs, 11,600 square feet in limited service eating places, 8,400 square feet in full-service restaurants and additional square footage in the areas of furniture and home furnishings, hardware stores, jewelry stores, lawn and garden supply stores, book and music stores, florists, beer, wine and liquor stores, and shoe stores.

Downtown Pontiac has tremendous economic development potential, officials said.

Downtown Pontiac has tremendous economic development potential, officials said.

Gibbs added the downtown could support 10 to 12 additional restaurants.

Essential to the project is turning the current one-way Woodward loop, nicknamed locally as “Wide Track,” that surrounds the downtown into a two way street. Not doing that would limit the city’s market potential to one to two additional restaurants – tops, Gibbs said, adding the Wide Track is not needed and does not help Pontiac.

“I grew up in Pontiac and I remember when it was in its hay day,” Gibbs said. “It’s exciting for me to come back here and do this study and see the growth potential it has. All in all the city has potential to support upward of 215,000 square feet in new restaurants and new retail if physical restraints were removed and modern retail practices were implemented. You are the county seat for the eighth wealthiest county in the United States. We think there’s market potential if you implement changes.”

More than 60 Pontiac supporters attended the CNU Legacy Project on Friday, April 15, 2016.

More than 60 Pontiac supporters attended the CNU Legacy Project throughout the day on Friday, April 15, 2016.

Many of the proposals suggested for Pontiac are consistent with the eight assets identified in a recent study that make for vibrant communities. Those assets include improving walkability and physical design, entrepreneurship, public transit and economic development. That study can be found here at SaveMiCity.org.

About 60 Pontiac area supporters attended the first day of work in Pontiac Friday in the project called, “Building Upon the Assets of Pontiac: Creating a Vision for a Vibrant and Transit-Ready Pontiac.” More people are expected to participate Saturday and Sunday. The final plan and public discussion will take place 4 p.m. Sunday at 17 S. Saginaw St. in downtown.

Project team leader Galina Tachieva, managing partner of Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co., explained the goals of the Pontiac Legacy Project are to:

  • Create a vision for a remarkable, vibrant downtown to serve as a template for other downtown spaces;
  • Restore a walkable urban fabric to one of America’s great industrial cities with high quality public spaces;
  • Identify options for the Phoenix Center and adjacent Lot 9;
  • Create a transit-ready southern edge of downtown with the potential to become a regional multi-modal transport hub and a catalyst for transit-oriented development.
Galina Tachieva discusses ways to improve Pontiac.

Galina Tachieva discusses ways to improve Pontiac.

“The common tendency is that all of you want a beautiful, safe, attractive, downtown,” Tachieva said. “You have a lot of examples of good frontage but you also have a lot of what we call missing teeth. The goal is to fill in the missing teeth and make it a pleasant, pedestrian-friendly walking experience.”

The project, called “Revitalizing downtown Pontiac through transit-oriented development,” was lead by DPZ & Partners and had local support from Archive DS and Gibbs Planning Group.

Pontiac resident Linda Hasson attending the event was pleased with what she saw Friday night.

“You seem to really care and I appreciate that,” Hasson told Tachieva and Gibbs. “We need a push. I’m excited.”

For more information about placemaking go to placemaking.mml.org and for details on the CNU24 in Detroit in June go to cnu24.org. (View additional photos of downtown Pontiac and the charrette meetings go to this album on flickr.)

Matt Bach is director of media relations at the Michigan Municipal League. He can be reached at mbach@mml.org and (734) 669-6317.

Downtown Pontiac.

Downtown Pontiac.