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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.

 

Placemaker and CEO of Adelaide, Australia Peter Smith is coming to Michigan to speak at the Michigan Local Government Managers Association Winter Institute at the end of the month. Because he’s traveling so far, we figured we better take advantage of his time here with a fun, low-key, networking and information-sharing event in Detroit.1-26 event

Join the League at a networking and idea-mixing event with experts and practitioners who are passionate about building great communities.

Placemaking Happy Hour & Panel Discussion: Monday, January 26 from 4-6 PM at Seva Detroit

RSVP ButtonLook forward to great conversation and a cross disciplinary panel discussion moderated by Michigan Association of Planning Executive Director Andrea Brown. Panelists include:

  • Peter Smith, CEO of Adelaide, Australia
  • Alicia Marion-George, Co-owner of Motor City Java & Tea House
  • Sarida Scott, Executive Director of Community Development Advocates of Detroit
  • Steve Baker, Councilmember for the City of Berkley & IT Strategy and Innovation Lead at DTE Energy

The event is free and open to the public but space is limited so please RSVP here.

The League is pleased to host appetizers and there is a cash bar available. We’ll also be selling our new book, The Economics of Place: The Art of Building Great Communities.

Come for the event, but stay for dinner

Spend the evening in Detroit! Seva has a full dinner menu and there are plenty of restaurants in Midtown and within walking distance of the event, including:

Visiting family in Grand Rapids’ Heritage Hill neighborhood over the holidays is always a great opportunity to dive into another city’s urban form.  (Or at least that’s the excuse I give to get out of the house and away from family for a while!)  The

Great neighborhoods dedicate only the bare minimum amount of space to parking.

Great neighborhoods dedicate only the bare minimum amount of space to parking.

area, just east of downtown and south of the Medical Mile, is one of Michigan’s great urban neighborhoods, and it achieves that status despite (or because of) breaking several “everybody knows” rules of neighborhood planning.

Most communities’ planning & zoning documents assume an ideal neighborhood to be one that is dominated by owner-occupied single-family homes, with adequate yards for those families’ children to play in and driveways and garages for their cars to park in–any other neighborhood pattern is treated as somewhat less desirable, whether for reasons of “stability”, property values, maintenance standards, nuisance, or similar.  Many people certainly do want to live in that type of neighborhood, but because our zoning has enforced this as the “good” neighborhood pattern for 70 years now, most of our cities have an oversupply of it, while lacking options for residents who want something else.

The "terrace" pattern in Heritage Hill and Midtown fits half a dozen additional houses into the center of a block, or into places where irregular terrain or other factors break the street grid.

The “terrace” pattern in Heritage Hill and Midtown fits half a dozen additional houses into the center of a block, or into places where irregular terrain or other factors break the street grid.

Heritage Hill, and the adjacent East Hills and Midtown neighborhoods, showcase a different pattern: while most of the properties in this area look like “a house,” these neighborhoods have some of the highest residential densities in the city, and both homeowners and single-family homes are a minority.

This contrast comes from a few factors:

  • Homes are placed on relatively small lots–many less than 1/10 acre.
  • Most have very small “yard” areas, with front porches often within a few feet of the sidewalk, and the building occupying most of its lot.
  • While there are larger apartment buildings scattered through the neighborhood, the majority of dwelling units are in duplexes or  3- or 4-plexes. Some of these are visibly constructed as “flats”, but most are houses.
  • The historic streets are narrow, and off-street parking is limited, dedicating less of the neighborhood’s total acreage to asphalt.

Far from being less desirable as a result, data from GVSU’s Community Research Institute show these neighborhoods having above average shares of young, educated households and above average incomes; property values are strong and rising, and active renovation projects are visible on every block–just the type of talent attraction and local investment outcomes we hope to see from successful strategic placemaking efforts.

Martha's Vineyard, "a corner store with a global wine selection", anchors a neighborhood convenience cluster--pizza, bakery, and coffee--in Midtown.

Martha’s Vineyard, “a corner store with a global wine selection”, anchors a neighborhood convenience cluster–pizza, bakery, and coffee–in Midtown.

The neighborhoods also feature small business districts tucked within them, some only a few buildings large and located on “small residential streets” that wouldn’t meet most standards for commercial development. These are both cause and effect of the neighborhoods’ success: having the ability to grab a quick coffee or a few grocery items for dinner within a short walk of home is a plus for prospective residents–and the high density of those residents provides the critical mass of customers that supports those businesses.

Obviously, the historic housing stock of these neighborhoods is hard to replicate (the photos here are far from the most “grand” examples in the area) though a lot of the ingredients for success can be adopted by other neighborhoods, especially where there is a historic street grid and housing to start with:

Neighborhood organizations use plaque programs both to recognize individual property owners' contributions and build a shared sense of place identity.

Neighborhood organizations use plaque programs both to recognize individual property owners’ contributions and to build a shared sense of place identity.

  • The small lot, duplex to 4-plex pattern that contributes most of the residential density here can be used to add new choices to many neighborhoods, filling the “missing middle” between single-family homes and larger apartment complexes. A form-based code can help ensure these options, either as conversions or new construction, fit in with the existing building stock.
  • Look beyond zoning when considering the appropriate way to manage a neighborhood–here, the historic district designations and controls have clearly been the most significant regulatory contributor to success, rather than zoning.
  • Adopt a Complete Streets approach that allows residents to walk, bike, or take transit to many destinations reduces the need to plan around parking–in these Grand Rapids neighborhoods, about 2/3 of households have only 1 car, or none whatsoever.

Even more than these specific actions, having an engaged neighborhood is critical–the “place governance” here arose in the late 1960s, when residents organized to prevent the widespread demolition of their neighborhood for redevelopment, as well as to reach out and recruit new residents in spite of mortgage redlining, and the place the neighborhood is today reflects the interests and tactics of residents then.  Fortunately, not all organizing for place needs to arise from crisis.

Placemaking is such a buzz word of 2014 – and that’s a good thing! Placemaking awareness has been on the rise for the past few years, but themes, ideas, and policies are now more generally accepted and promoted. Placemaking is something people can relate to, want to talk about, and want to promote, which is great news for Michigan communities.

2014 has been a wonderful year for new research, stories, and perspectives on placemaking, engagement, and talent attraction throughout Michigan and across the globe. As part of the League’s services, we’ve been documenting and cataloguing articles related to our placemaking asset areas to use in presentations, guidebooks, research, and talking points. Here are my top five favorite reports of the year:

Investing In Place, American Planning Association

investing in placeMillennials were certainly a discussion topic of 2014. Articles like What Millennials Want – And Why Cities are Right to Pay Them So much Attention, Millennials & Mobility: Understanding the Millennial Mindset, and the Deloitte Millennial Survey populated newsfeeds. As a millennial, the results didn’t seem that staggering – we care about placemaking, doesn’t everybody? In case some leaders still weren’t getting the picture, the American Planning Association went a step further to explore the similar wants and needs of the country’s two largest population groups: millennials and boomers. It turns out they want the same things. Recommendations to please the largest populations include:

  • Engage residents: 75% of millennials and boomers agree that engaging citizens is essential to rebuilding local economies and creating jobs
  • Prioritize walkability and transit: Fewer than 10% of millennials, gen Xers, and boomers are interested in traditional, auto-dependent suburban living
  • Invest in quality of life: 74% of respondents believe investing in schools, walkability, and transportation is a better way to grow the economy than traditional approaches.

Using findings from this report, community leaders can frame future investments and development plans based on the public’s interests.

The Rise of Innovation Districts, The Brookings Institute

Communities and metro regions across the country are recovering from the Great Recession, but most are still behind their pre-recession peaks. There are some areas, however, that are recovering faster and stronger. According to the report, downtowns where people both live and work grew 77% faster than the country as a whole. Similarly, metro areas with more than 1 million people grew twice as fast than areas with populations under 250,000innovation districts

The report explores all aspects of innovation districts – which Brookings defines as a high density area of entrepreneurs, education and medical institutions, start-ups, and mixed-use developments that are interconnected through transit, technology, and physical proximity. The Rise of Innovation Districts says these districts are where jobs can grow faster, stronger, and more equitably, where density can reduce carbon emissions, and where local governments can generate more tax revenue. The report continues to explore the economic, physical, and networking aspects of how innovations work, as well as how community leaders can spark and scale innovation districts in their own communities.

Even for smaller communities, the report can be used as leverage to promote different areas of placemaking from entrepreneurial incentives, to walkable streets, to efficient transportation options.

State Policies Matter, Michigan Future

state policiesThis report is Michigan-specific, and especially with drama from Michigan’s current lame duck legislature, civic leaders should take a few minutes to read or re-read this paper. State Policies Matter describes how Michigan and Minnesota were once very similar states, with similar statewide policies and economies. Since 1990, however, Michigan and Minnesota have been growing more and more dissimilar: Minnesota now ranks 11th highest in the country in per capita income while Michigan is ranked 35th, and Minnesota’s unemployment and poverty rates have declined but Michigan’s have stayed about the same or worsened. This report seeks to explain the growing differences between the two states through policy decisions state and local leaders have made over recent decades. Major differences include the following:

  • Income taxes, business taxes, sales taxes, and gas taxes are all significantly higher in Minnesota, which means per capita state and local taxes are $1,000 – $5,000 higher than in Michigan.
  • These higher tax revenues allow Minnesota’s government to invest more in important priorities. For example, Michigan spends $1,447/person on k-12 education, while Minnesota spends $2,067/person. Michigan spends $223/person on transportation, while Minnesota spends $465/person. And Michigan spends $119/person in local government aid, while Minnesota spends $465/person.
  • Social policies are also more equitable in Minnesota than in Michigan. For example, the state allows same-sex marriages, allows affirmative action for college admissions, and allows undocumented high school graduates to receive in-state tuition at state universities.

This report can be seen as a timely warning to our state and local leaders to reconsider some current policy priorities.

The Equity Solution, PolicyLink

This fall, PolicyLink launched the National Equity Atlas, an online resource of demographics and economic data across the US with policy implications focused on racial equality. This data highlights the persistent, and often growing gaps, between the rich and poor, and white and non-white populations. Some important findings include:

  • equity atlasRacial economic inclusion could annually add $2 trillion to the national economy
  • 66% of racial income gap is due to wage differences, and only 34% is due to employment differences
  • Every region in the country would be stronger with racial inclusion. Potential annual gains range from $287 million to $510 billion in the nation’s 150 largest metro regions.

Users can manipulate data on the National Equality Atlas site to represent findings from their state or region. Michigan can be looked at as a whole or in the Ann Arbor, Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, and Lansing regions.

The report also highlights policy recommendations for closing economic gaps between racial lines. Some examples include:

  • Invest in transit and other infrastructure projects to improve connectivity and create jobs
  • Leverage anchor institutions to grow new business in underinvested areas
  • Raise the minimum wage through local living wage ordinances or statewide initiatives
  • Remove barriers of employment, like prohibiting credit checks for job applicants and increasing citizenship for immigrants.

City Open Data Policies, National League of Cities

open dataMunicipalities collect and store a ton of information but most of it just sits there. Recently, excitement around open data has grown through initiatives from Code for America and other organizations – if there’s data, let people access it, manipulate it, and see what they can come up with. Open data is simply “data that can be freely used, reused, and redistributed by anyone” and is a pretty new idea for cities around the world. This report highlights lessons learned so far from 5 cities who have implemented open data policies and outlines recommendations and resources for communities looking to implement something similar.

Jackson is the only Michigan community, so far, to venture into the possibilities of open data. With work from city leaders, student interns, and national institutional advisors, Jackson has already adopted an open data ordinance and is currently working on creating an online portal. Communities interested in learning more are encouraged to contact Jackson and take recommendations from the NLC report:

  • Find leadership for open data initiatives
  • Commit to open data through legislation and formal policies
  • Allocate resources to open data initiatives – although it’s low cost, the best policies have appropriate staffing and budgeting
  • Rely on experts to provide technical expertise and customer service for online platforms since municipalities often don’t have the in-house resources readily available

So what are you supposed to do with these five reports?

Read them, share them, and use them to make decisions in your community. And if you want more light reading for the holiday break, just let me know! Since April, we have been cataloging interesting articles, reports, and case studies related to placemaking. So far we have about 200 in our database, so there’s plenty to keep you busy.

Looking forward to another year of research, placemaking, and community building!