Last week I had the chance to check out progress on part of Kalamazoo’s PlacePlan: a “road diet” on a section of Portage Street, passing through the Edison neighborhood’s historic Washington Square district.

Portage Street had suffered the same fate as numerous urban roads: in the name of carrying the most cars at the fastest speed, the asphalt was widened over time until it squeezed the sidewalks up against the storefronts, contributing to the decline of the businesses in this area and the decay of the buildings.

In August 2014, pedestrians in Washington Square faced traffic zipping around a blind curve, uncomfortable close to the too-narrow sidewalk.

In August 2014, pedestrians in Washington Square faced traffic zipping around a blind curve, uncomfortably close to the too-narrow sidewalk.

As a result of our work with Kalamazoo through the 2014 round of PlacePlans, the city has implemented a light-weight reconfiguration of Portage Street: it now has 3 lanes (one in each direction and a left turn lane) in place of 4.  This pulls traffic away from the curb, making the street less hostile to pedestrians, it pulls cars turning left out of the flow of traffic, reducing rear-end crashes, and it provides room for several blocks for a bike line connecting Washington Square to downtown.  Driving through the area at 5:15pm, when the pavement should be at its busiest, traffic was smooth and there were no significant delays, even though the change is still new and unfamiliar to drivers.

In the "trial" stage of the road change, traffic is pushed away from the curb--even just white paint gives people some breathing room.

In the “trial” stage of the road change, traffic is pushed away from the curb–even just white paint gives people some breathing room.

Right now, the change is a test–essentially just changing the paint and the traffic signal timing–but the city is planning to rebuild the street in a few years.  The trial period will let Kalamazoo figure out whether to continue and improve on the 3-lane version of the road when they rebuild, or go back to the drawing board: either way, they’ll be entering that process with good experience and traffic data.

What’s happening outside the right-of-way is also pretty exciting: the Kalamazoo Land Bank owns several properties in the area, and four once-vacant storefronts have filled up since we delivered their PlacePlan: a fitness studio, sandwich shop, credit union branch, and artisans market inhabit the newly renovated spaces.  While we can’t claim credit for the storefront rehabs–the Land Bank came to the table with these buildings already in-progress–these businesses and those that join them will offer more evidence of the power of coordinated public and private investment to make great places.

This building, vacant a year ago, has had a facelift and hosts three new businesses; the corner space is still under construction, but the building looks great even in the too-early November twilight.

This building, vacant a year ago, has had a facelift and hosts three new businesses; the corner space is still under construction, but the building looks great even in the too-early November twilight.

Kalamazoo’s next step is the farmers’ market charrette coming up November 19-20: as their market bursts at the seams, they’re planning out the next stage of its growth–including how it connects to Washington Square and other areas nearby.

Benton-Harbor-final-design-300x200In the lively atmosphere of The Livery in downtown Benton Harbor, the community gathered to see and celebrate the final PlacePlan for Dwight Pete Mitchell City Center Park on Oct. 22. Many in the crowd had participated in the three previous Square 1 design workshops, so they were anxious to see how all their ideas had been translated into the design.

Mindful of the community’s desires for a park that was both inviting and easy to maintain, the MSU designers added some elements and removed others from the plan presented in August. Creative lighting, public art, a permanent space for the Benton Harbor Farmer’s Market, and a permanent stage for events such as the annual Coming Home Coming Together Concert all made it into the final rendering. Other items that would be more costly to maintain, such as a splash pad and ice rink, made an exit stage left.

To help move the park design toward implementation, the League’s Richard Murphy presented a variety of potential funding mechanisms. Crowdfunding is one possibility. Grant programs through the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development are other options.

Benton-Harbor-Marja-2-others-crop-300x200The design plans are now being turned over to the Benton Harbor Parks Conservancy, which will be responsible for helping those plans become reality. “We can’t do it without your help,” said Benton Harbor Parks Conservancy president Stephannie Harvey-Vandenberg to the crowd. The community seemed enthusiastically ready to offer their support. Signatures quickly filled a large banner with the new hashtag #BelieveinBH. And small posters were emblazoned with residents’ hopes for the community they love.

We fully expect to see great things happen at Dwight Pete Mitchell City Center Park!

Read more about the Benton Harbor PlacePlan.

BH-City-Center-Park-renderingThis week, Benton Harbor residents were treated to a second round of conceptual drawings showing what their beloved Dwight Pete Mitchell City Center Park may look like in the near future. Michigan State University professors Warren Rauhe and Wayne Beyea presented drawings combining features that received the most positive feedback from the community in two prior visioning sessions. The current design includes a stage for concerts and special events, covered space for farmers market booths, attractive landscaping, a splash pad for children, and plenty of seating for people to gather and enjoy the view. After the presentation, everyone shared their thoughts in small groups.

As exciting as it is to imagine the park’s new look and feel, it’s even more exciting to get a little taste of it right now. That’s exactly what we did the day after the presentation. Together with the weekly farmers market and Harbor Market, we did some pop-up placemaking to bring the park to life.

girls-playing-300x200We arranged comfy, colorful seating in cozy groups. And we filled the lawn with games ranging from badminton to soccer. Before we knew it, people of all ages were happily browsing through the farmers market stands to the beat of live music, and wandering over to the grass to play a game with their kids or sit and enjoy a taco from the nearby food truck. With some ingenuity and hard work, that type of scene can become a more frequent occurrence at City Center Park.

We also had the second round of conceptual drawings on display and encouraged people to give us more feedback. In October, the MSU team will return with their final drawings and report. We encourage all interested Benton Harbor residents to attend.


Biking along the Lake Michigan shore in Grand Haven

People of all ages are attracted to waterfronts. From lakeside cafes to waterfront festivals to leisurely walks and bike rides along the shore, the activities and amenities that draw in residents and visitors are endless. In Michigan – with more than 3,000 miles of Great Lakes shoreline, more than 11,000 lakes, and over 51,000 miles of rivers – there are certainly plenty of places to create fabulous waterfronts.

After studying waterfronts around the world, the Project for Public Spaces recently developed a list of the 10 qualities that make a really great waterfront destination:

  1. Surrounding Buildings Enhance Public Space – Any building on the waterfront should boost activity in the public spaces around it.
  2. Limits are Placed on Residential Development – Great waterfronts are not dominated by residential development. Why? Because these are places full of people, day and night.
  3. waterfront-Brighton-England-300x200

    Brighton, England

    Activities go on Round-the-Clock and Throughout the Year – Waterfronts that thrive year-round will reap substantial community and economic benefits.

  4. Flexible Design Fosters Adaptability – Successful waterfronts must adapt to many changes that bring different users at different times.
  5. Creative Amenities Boost Everyone’s Enjoyment – The best waterfronts feature amenities that increase people’s comfort and enjoyment.
  6. Access Made Easy by Boat, Bike and Foot – Waterfronts flourish when they can be access by means other than private vehicles.
  7. Local Identity is Showcased – The greatest waterfront destinations are found in cities that truly orient themselves to the water.
  8. The Water itself Draws Attention – The water itself is the greatest asset of any waterfront, and should become the centerpiece for programming and activities.
  9. Iconic Buildings Serve a Variety of Functions – Iconic, attention-grabbing buildings that reflect a human scale and do not detract from the surrounding context can be a boon to the waterfront, so long as they serve a variety of functions.
  10. Good Management Maintains Community Vision – Management is essential to ensure that a successful waterfront stays that way.

More details and examples from around the country and the world are available in the full article.

Many Michigan cities are treasure troves of waterfront development ideas as well. For example, Detroit’s riverfront has been transformed into beautiful parks and plazas that set the stage for a myriad of entertaining activities. And in Grand Haven, sandy Lake Michigan beaches are complemented by scenic bike trails, unique shops, boat and trolley rides, and a one-of-a-kind Musical Fountain.


Cadillac PlacePlan

Through our PlacePlans projects, the League is working with a number of other communities to help them get the most out of their waterfronts. Allegan is moving forward with plans to redevelop its Kalamazoo Riverfront to make it a more inviting destination. In Cadillac, the city has begun implementing plans to redesign a lakeside block as a year-round destination and attractive connection to downtown businesses. In Boyne City and Niles, current PlacePlans projects are developing designs that will amp up the value of their waterfront assets.

Need more inspiration? At this year’s Convention, we’re offering even more ideas in our Sept. 16 workshop, Waves of Waterfront Economic Development Strategies. In this session, attendees will learn about waterfront projects in Traverse City and communities across the state.