MI-Big-Green-Gym-verticalUnder a blazing hot July sun, Lansing residents and visitors were treated to fun, interactive, pop-up placemaking on Capitol Avenue today! The west driving lane became a bikers-only lane. And, with the capitol building as an impressive backdrop, the League and a variety of Lansing area organizations set up creative parklets in the parking lane as part of our Convert Capitol Avenue project.

The parklets were designed to invite people in to dabble in fun and relaxing experiences. Play in the sandbox at the League’s parklet, get to know Bowser the snapping turtle at Fenner Nature Center’s realistic-looking setting, challenge a friend to a giant game of Connect 4, bounce on MI Big Green Gym’s wavy, bright blue playground equipment, or just relax in a canoe with the quietest border collie you’ve ever seen. Everyone who traversed Capitol Avenue by foot, bike or motor vehicle saw how small changes can have a big people-centric impact on a public space.

All these activities are part of a bigger conversation about what people would like to see happen along Capitol Avenue to make it more people-friendly. Do you have some thoughts? Share them with us in this brief survey.

Nate-handing-out-money-200x230“Money” and conversation were flowing at Farmington Hills City Hall as residents of both Farmington and Farmington Hills gathered for the unveiling of the preliminary design plans for the 10 Mile/Orchard Lake intersection.

As they walked in the door, Nate Geinzer, assistant to the city manager, handed everyone $1,000 in play money and asked them to “invest” it in the placemaking features that are most important to them in this process. Their choices ranged from events and activities, communications, and streetscape to pedestrian/bike facilities and public space. At the end of the evening, the money was counted and the interesting results are shown in the graph below.

Viewing-plans-300x200At the March visioning workshop, residents and businesses had an opportunity to share their ideas for reimagining the 10 Mile/Orchard Lake intersection. Following that session, the urban design team from Lawrence Technological University – Professor Kim Joongsub and student Dustin Altschul – reviewed all the ideas and converted them into a design proposal. Several copies of the design, along with the draft report, were on display for everyone to view and comment on.

Altschul describes the design, which was available for view and comment, as aligning with the communities’ ideals of making walkability and biking more pleasurable, strengthening community connections with a public gathering space, and adding environmentally-conscious elements.

investing-chart-300x274Download Area Plan
Download Concept Design
Download Phasing Plan
Download Project Timeline

 

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Dwight Pete Mitchell with his wife, Margo

It was easy to see how Benton Harbor’s Dwight Pete Mitchell City Center Park got its moniker. When its namesake was introduced at the park’s June 16 design workshop, thunderous applause broke out! Clearly, he was a very popular city manager during his 2002-2008 tenure.

Mitchell was part of a large crowd that gathered at Benton Harbor Public Library to get their first glimpse of Michigan State University’s preliminary design plans for the park. After gathering feedback from the community at a visioning workshop in April, professors Warren Rauhe and Wayne Beyea returned with two alternatives. Rauhe referred to the first plan as a “people’s park”, featuring a multi-purpose stage, concession stand, farmers market and an urban wetland area. He characterized the second plan as a “traditional park with a bold architectural attitude.” That plan includes an events lawn, central fountain, shaded space, and a “sail-covered” promenade.

Group-viewing-design-plans-300x200After a brief presentation from Rauhe, the crowd was let loose to wander around for the main event of the evening – gathering feedback. With sticky notes and pens in hand, they wrote comments on what they loved and didn’t love and posted them right on the drawings. Now, Rauhe, Beyea and their student teams will go back to the drawing board and assimilate all that feedback into a new round of renderings. In August, Benton Harbor residents will have a chance to review the new drawings as the plan for the park gets closer and closer to meeting the needs and desires of the community.

 

 

Cars are king in most Michigan suburbs. We have designed our suburbs for efficiency of process, where uses are separated and car-oriented, said Ellen Dunham-Jones, co-author of Retrofitting Suburbia, at the League’s Suburban Summits in May. But in recent years, suburbs have been hit with a double-punch from the struggling economy and changing demographics, leaving them with empty buildings and properties in need of a new life.

That’s a game-changer, says Dunham-Jones, making efficiency of place the watchword of the day as we consider how to redevelop our suburbs. The efficiency of more compact, urban development can provide cities with lower infrastructure costs and higher tax revenue per acre. At the same time, it offers millennials and baby boomers the walkable, urban lifestyle they crave.

As suburbs consider how to retrofit underutilized properties, Dunham-Jones emphasizes first knowing why the site died. That will help determine which of the following design strategies is the most appropriate, although many older retrofits have some degree of all three strategies:

  • Reinhabit – use the building for a more community-service purpose
  • Redevelop – build a more dense, urban, walkable place
  • Regreen – turn the site into a park or open space

For more details on these three strategies, please read an earlier blog, “Creating a Purposeful New Life for Old Suburban Sites”.

21st Century Challenges

Retrofitting can also help suburbs address a variety of 21st century challenges – everything from auto-dependence and jobs to an aging population and environmental issues.

Auto-dependence
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Many of today’s consumers would like to ditch their cars and walk or take transit to a variety of places – a pretty big challenge in our auto-oriented suburbs. At Mashpee Commons in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, developers addressed that problem by building a quaint New England village on the parking lot of an old strip center. The new development boasts first floor shops with apartments above, as well as civic space.

Public Health
The sedentary lifestyle of the suburbs has contributed to an epidemic of chronic diseases, such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Human sprawl and suburban sprawl correlate, says Dunham-Jones. People in urban areas tend to lead more active lifestyles, so she advises introducing more physical activity and walkability and making streets safer. One example she offered is the dying One Hundred Oaks Mall in Nashville, Tennessee. Vanderbilt University took over the second floor of the mall for a medical center. The center is getting better patient results as people love the convenient location and the chance to shop while waiting for their appointment.

Social Capital
Suburban social life used to revolve around schools, but with a rising number of childless households, people are seeking new “third” places when they can build community. A group in Oak Cliff, Texas came up with a creative solution to that challenge along a boarded-up block of businesses.  For two days, the Build a Better Block group transformed the block with art in the store windows, street trees, food trucks and more. Two small ordinance changes from the city enabled some of these changes to become permanent.

Equity and Affordability
Transportation costs are higher in the suburbs, particularly for people in the lower half of the income bracket. They often spend more on transportation than housing, so affordable housing near affordable transportation is essential. At Cottages on Greene Street in Rhode Island, the answer to affordable housing came in the form of dense, quaint cottages that seamlessly transition into the surrounding commercial area.

Jobs
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Attracting and retaining millennial workers is tricky as most of them have no interest in the “Dilbert-style” cubicles typically available in suburban office parks, says Dunham-Jones.  Denver, Colorado has the right idea with their TAXI development, a former taxi garage that now houses cool, loft-style office space and even a swimming pool made from shipping containers.

Energy
As energy costs escalate, energy conservation becomes a bigger concern. At the Mueller development in Austin, Texas, a former airport is being developed into an urban community where all the houses are on a smart grid and use solar power.

Water
Water can be a challenge on several fronts – your community may have too much, too little, or the quality has been compromised. At Northgate Urban Center in North Seattle, Washington, the mayor was able to improve water quality by negotiating a deal that enabled daylighting a creek that had been routed through a pipe. The creek is now an amenity for the new condos and senior housing that surrounds it.

As with the three design strategies for retrofitting suburbs, we need layered solutions to deal with all the 21st century challenges as well, says Dunham-Jones. We need to change the metrics of success.