We’re proud to be part of Michigan’s leadership in building on place, but that doesn’t mean we’re content to rest on our laurels or pretend we’ve got everything figured out.  We’re still learning as we go, and updating our practice as we figure out what’s working well and what needs more attention in our communities.  As a result, many of the projects in this year’s third cycle of the PlacePlans program look very different from the initial pilots!

Yesterday, at the Building Michigan Communities conference, I was joined by some of our on-the-ground partners to talk about the different types of projects we’ve undertaken, and how the program has grown:

Allegan's first phase of construction shows the evolution from the vision created during their PlacePlans design process to the nuts and bolts of engineering considerations.

Allegan’s first phase of construction shows the evolution from the vision created during their PlacePlans design process to the nuts and bolts of engineering considerations.

Rob Hillard, city manager of Allegan, hosted one of our first PlacePlans projects: in 2012, we first teamed up with the team of physical space design experts from MSU’s School of Planning, Design, and Construction to look at the City of Allegan’s downtown waterfront. Allegan is one of our best-case scenarios: less than 6 months after the PlacePlans team wrapped up work, local voters approved removing $500,000 from the city’s sinking fund to seed implementation, and the city was able to leverage that to secure another $567,000 from other sources: the city is currently out to bid for the first phase of construction, which will create a public plaza with stage and amphitheater while “both reducing and improving parking.” Even while we see this as a successful move from our work to results, watching Rob’s follow-through helped us understand how we needed to look at funding scenarios–and getting potential funders involved–early in the process to support that transition. With that in mind, we’ve kept Samantha busy in her new role as President of the League’s Foundation.

We also decided that, while the design process worked well for Allegan, it wasn’t the type of support that many of our cities were stating a need for.  Laura Lam, community and economic development director for Kalamazoo, talked about her experience in the second round of PlacePlans, when we assembled teams of private consulting firms to address targeted needs in some of our cities.

LSL's transportation expertise helped Kalamazoo weigh trade-offs within the existing bounds of Portage Street.

LSL’s transportation expertise helped Kalamazoo weigh trade-offs within the existing bounds of Portage Street: the city will be undertaking a trial reconfiguration of the street this summer in advance of a planned reconstruction.

The City of Kalamazoo is acting on several of the recommendations from our work, but perhaps the biggest impacts will come from the engagement of the neighborhood’s anchor institutions, such as  and Bronson Hospital, which has committed to reduce driving and parking demand to their campus and is hiring a bicycle coordinator in support of that goal.  To make those connections, we had to change directions mid-stream in our work to catch up to and coordinate with related discussions that KVCC was hosting around the development of their new Healthy Living Campus. This year’s approach to our work in Saginaw is strongly shaped by that experience: sometimes all the right pieces are already on the table, and figuring out how to put them together is more important than bringing anything novel.

Berkley addressed ambivalence over turning a downtown street into a festival plaza by jumping in and trying it out.

Berkley addressed ambivalence over turning a downtown street into a festival plaza by jumping in and trying it out.

Finally, Sarah Szurpicki, a partner with New Solutions Group, talked about the projects that her team facilitated in Berkley and Utica last summer. These two cities had pitched us projects that we liked, but that weren’t quite ready for the full PlacePlans approach, so we engaged Sarah to help them road-test some ideas. Not only did this help the cities figure out where to take these project, but our experience with those cities’ stakeholder groups helped us organize community members better in all of our projects: we’ve added a “community steering committee” to most of our PlacePlans this year, to make sure we’re not missing any voices or opportunities. Additionally, these two cities reinforced that small-scale efforts need to be exceptionally focused: Berkley’s project gave clearer direction for next steps because it was tightly focused on a single downtown block.

We’ll probably never do PlacePlans the same way two years in a row, and that’s a good thing: it means that, even with our successes, we keep figuring out how we could do better with the next one.

Last week, the League’s Southwest Detroit PlacePlan project took an important step with a three-day charrette, a community-based design workshop. Southwest Detroit is known for great food, a lively atmosphere, and local art. Known as Mexicantown, Hispanic culture is evident in almost all aspects of the community.

Vernor is Southwest Detroit’s main street and is populated with densely packed storefronts, restaurants, and independent businesses. Due to Southwest Detroit’s proximity to Canada and the international bridge crossing, the area unfortunately has quite a bit of industrial land use and suffers from a high volume of truck traffic.

A Google map of Vernor with "the gap" highlighted.

A Google map of Vernor with “the gap” highlighted.

As seen in the map above, Vernor’s vibrant commercial district is divided by about a half mile “gap,” created by complicated intersections, a former industrial complex, wide one-way roads, a viaduct, and an unnatural bend in the road. In an effort to better connect the east and west sides of Vernor, the League partnered with Southwest Detroit Business Association (SDBA) and Archive DS to collect resident ideas, concerns, and desires to reduce the gap and better connect the community.

Over the three-day process, ArchiveDS designers worked long hours in SDBA’s storefront office to get to know the community, collect ideas from residents, and create stages of potential improvements. Because development is often a slow, expensive process, ArchiveDS developed a number of solutions to more immediately improve the area, with long-term recommendations to look forward to when financing and leadership allow.

Vernor-MorphA-1-smallVernor-MorphA-4-small
(Left) Current view of the Vernor and Livernois intersection. (Right) Proposed streetscape improvements: Bump-out parking, bike lanes, crosswalk, landscape improvements, and sidewalk bordering techniques. Some of these aspects are very low-cost but make a big impact on pedestrian comfort.

For example, Southwest Detroit has many independently operated taco trucks, ice cream vendors, and small, independent businesses. Currently these vendors are scattered across empty lots and sidewalks throughout the district.

To capitalize on this aspect of the community, ArchiveDS recommends building small sitting areas in underused parking lots for food trucks to park and sell on a regular basis. The endeavor doesn’t have to be highly organized, as it is at Mark’s Carts in Ann Arbor, but can be a simple space for residents to gather, have a meal, and enjoy the outdoors.

Vernor-Sketch-BridgeB-smallVernor-Sketch-Bridge-small
(Left) Current view of the Vernor viaduct. (Right) Proposed recommendations to make the space more pedestrian friendly: Local art, protected pedestrian/bike area, and creative lighting.

Larger, more long-term changes will certainly benefit the gap and ArchiveDS pulled in elements of the community into the recommended changes. As seen above, the viaduct between Livernois and Dix is a harsh divide of the east and west sides of Vernor. The team recommends incorporating local art, a clearly defined pedestrian/bicycle area, and creative lighting to make the space more comfortable and welcoming.

An imagined market in an industrial building near the Livernois and Vernor intersection.

An imagined market in an industrial building at the Livernois and Vernor intersection.

A major problem in the identified area is a former industrial building. Although a clean up and improvements are necessary, the building could become a major asset to the community. As seen in ArchiveDS’s rendering, the building could be transformed into a indoor/outdoor market to benefit local business owners, residents, and visitors to the community. Transforming the space into a destination wouldn’t come without substantial funding, but identifying what the community wants is the first step towards changing the area’s future.

The Archive DS team is now writing a full report to share with SDBA and the Southwest community. The League will move to a supportive role as the community continues to identify priorities, coordinate funding, and gain momentum for the project.

Marquette’s Baraga Avenue two-day charrette was aptly summarized by one participant as, “… a great process, synthesizing the idealistic with the pragmatic.”

Baraga Avenue’s location as the first primary street entering Marquette’s downtown and situated across from continuing well-planned and exciting developments at Founder’s Landing along popular Lakeshore Drive and the Spring Street bike/pedestrian pathway, makes this location a certain future hot-spot.

Baraga Ave. PlacePlans CharretteHistorically the main street to the hub of industrial activities, Baraga Avenue is wide and its eclectic mix of trendy specialty shops, museum district and light industrial, leading to the city’s governmental center, is currently surrounded by a sea of concrete and asphalt. This creates an unappealing first impression and discourages pedestrian traffic. While only a couple blocks removed from the principal shopping area on Washington and Front Streets and a mere block from the Farmers Market and other event sites–the relatively bleak surroundings do not entice people to Baraga.

Much discussion from business owners and stakeholders has centered around maintaining views of the waterfront, creating an entrance signaling to people that they have “arrived”, traffic calming, encouraging outdoor dining and inviting seating areas where passersby will see more activity, providing a more obvious connection between the Children’s Museum and the History Museum, public art displays, “greening” up the area, creating more inviting connections to the downtown and waterfront with potential wind protection, and incorporating design features that honor the area’s original historical purpose and heritage. There are also some great potential sites for exciting mixed-use development.  Baraga Ave. is definitely the spot to watch.

The energy of the first visioning session carried through to the two-day charrette as stakeholders engaged in lively discussion, listened with open minds, were ever respectful and offered incredibly creative suggestions.  A summarized list of the feedback loop from the first days’ session is as follows:

  • Respect and enhance working waterfront and views
  • Include public art that is reflective of Marquette
  • Create a sense of arrival and pedestrian enhancements at the intersection of Front & Baraga
  • Enhance mid-block connections between Baraga and the downtown
  • Incorporate a stormwater management system as a functional and artistic natural feature
  • Encourage pedestrian activity and outdoor eating
  • Develop first floor retail on the parking structure
  • Provide a unified streetscape character while respecting functional needs of businesses and snow removal
  • Refine site furnishings and street elements to reflect Marquette’s history and character
  • Provide bicycle parking and access to the non-motorized network

Please leave your own comments at the Baraga Avenue Facebook page.

 

 

 

Cadillac community stakeholders were busy at work again last week creating a sense of place centered around a critical one-block area of the downtown, connecting the backs of businesses like the Clam Lake Beer Co. along Mitchell Street and the new Baker College student apartments with the city’s lakefront park, band pavilion, award-winning Clam River Greenway and soon-to-be White Pine Trailhead.

After one-on-one stakeholder interviews and a great community visioning session in early December, a steady stream of stakeholder groups and interested citizens could be found visiting the two-day charrette last week, examining the two initial design concepts created by the MSU PlacePlans design team. The convenient location of the charrette process on the third floor of a contiguous building provided a bird’s-eye view of the design area, greatly aiding discussion.

Collaborative discussion resulted in creative suggestions such as the addition of a second dock for boaters, a separate dedicated fishing pier, landscape-designed seating for music events, the memorial fountain as a year-round attraction, brightening up and creating friendly access at the backs of bordering businesses, and creating safe and attractive walkways from nearby parking.

Rotary Pavilion - CadillacCadillac residents and business owners were not only philosophical and strategic about the typically bristly issue of reduced parking, but also about the service delivery alley and the sometimes polarizing subject of potentially closing Lake Street. They tended toward compromise in all areas, such as keeping Lake Street engineered as a roadway, but designed as a pedestrian environment with retractable bollards for opening and closing the roadway as practical.

The Michigan Municipal League is proud to be partnered with MSU  and MSHDA in the PlacePlans program, and we are as excited as the people of Cadillac to see the next and near final, concept unveiling.