Sprawl – we know it when we see it.  We all live with sprawl in some way or other, but do we ever stop to think how it impacts our lives?  Or do we just go through the motions of everyday life and become comfortably numb to our daily activities and surroundings? And it impacts us financially, as well.  We pay a lot more for sprawl development than for compact development.

Sun City West Sprawl 300x225A recent trip to the Phoenix area, hit me harder than usual.  It wasn’t my first time there, but my awareness and critique of how we build communities become increasingly unforgiving as time goes by.  If I were asked to describe Arizona in a few short words, it would go something like this:  cement pavement, strip malls, franchise restaurants, multilane roads (in one direction), boundless traffic, breathtaking views, soothing mountains, relentless sunshine, blue sky, rich history. Talk about divergent narratives – and all of them are true.  I’m not going to espouse why everyone should experience the beauty of Arizona once in their lifetime, I will leave that to the travel books. I just want to share (or vent is more like it) a few thoughts on poor planning – the bane of our everyday life.

I’m not a trained traffic engineer or certified planner, but I don’t have to be – and neither do you – to know what’s working and what’s not.  We just have to stop and think about how we go about our daily lives, and ask ourselves a few basic questions:  how much time do we spend in a car?  Do we have a local coffee shop or restaurant that we can easily get to?  What do we consider to be the heart of the community?  Can we walk to the library?  (Check out Strong Towns, an organization advocating for vibrant and resilient communities, which offers ten simple questions called the Strong Towns Strength Test to test the strength of your community.)

Most of us know someone who has fled the frigid north for the year-round warmer climates.  On my trip to Phoenix, I visited a friend who lives in a senior community, west of Phoenix.  It is an award winning community development which has separated the housing from shopping, restaurants, and cultural venues.  Sound familiar?  With an aging population, there should be less reliance on a car, not more.  So why are they building and expanding (construction can be seen everywhere) the road system?  The lanes are already confusing, and it’s difficult to access stores and restaurants that you see on the other side of the median.   At all hours of the day, traffic is heavy.  I saw no evidence of traffic calming devices or alternative modes of transportation.  That means you have to get in your car (or take your life in your hands in a golf cart) to get anywhere.  Even though a Starbucks coffee shop was only 2 blocks away from where I was staying, there was no way that I or anybody else was going to feel safe walking over there.  Even the most foolhardy would not risk crossing the multilane roads which lacked any clear markings for pedestrians

verrado pic 300x225I did, however, see an example of a planned community, which has all the potential for great community living. It is called Verrado, in Buckeye, Arizona, west of Phoenix. It is built on the principles of New Urbanism.  Once you get off the freeway, you truly enter an oasis of peaceful, walkable neighborhood living, with the presence of bike and walking paths everywhere.  Although there were a fair amount of people in the small town center on a Sunday, a second visit during the week, showed a lot less people.  It was clear that this community is in its infancy.  More businesses and restaurants need to open to attract more people before it becomes a true destination.

Of course, we don’t have to go to Arizona to find examples of uncontrolled sprawl.  We can go anywhere in this country and find it, including right here in Michigan.  We are becoming an older nation, and unlike previous generations, as boomers age, they are choosing to age in place.  That means that communities will have to be ready to meet their growing needs. There is no time to waste.  We need to build more mixed-use communities, retrofit our suburbs, and consider alternative modes of transportation that will accommodate these challenges.  And in the end, we will be providing a great quality of life for all generations.

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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.