On October 11, Lansing is hosting its third annual Creative Placemaking Summit. I’m honored to be one of the presenters and will be sharing the stage with two of my favorite creative placemakers, Rebekah Kik and Danielle Lewinski. Our assignment is to tackle a tough topic: the cultural conflict between the anything-goes experimentation at the heart of the placemaking movement and the sometimes stifling, but usually well-intentioned bureaucracies of private and public landowners that often have to approve or enable placemaking projects. Put more simply, what happens when a wild & crazy idea runs into the “culture of no”?

Danielle, Rebekah and I have experienced this issue from many perspectives, so we hope to share our experiences with the Summit attendees and identify opportunities for empathy and problem-solving. But this is a tricky and evolving issue, so I’d love to hear from you about how you’ve addressed it. Email me or tweet at me with bright ideas. Better yet, join me at the Summit and we can discuss in person. Conference organizers have lined up an impressive group of leaders from around the country as presenters.

 

For Valentine’s Day this year, the Young Preservationists of the Great Lakes Bay delivered valentines to their favorite vacant historic properties in Bay City and Saginaw, hoping to draw some attention to these buildings—and perhaps ultimately a soulmate who could breathe life back into some of them.  (Yes, Valentine’s Day was a month ago; I’m the late one here.)

Posting valentines on vacant houses might not fix structural issues, but can help signal to a potential buyer that the community is pulling for them. (Photo courtesy Kristi Kozubel)

Posting valentines on vacant houses might not fix structural issues, but can help signal to a potential buyer that the community is pulling for them. (Photo courtesy Kristi Kozubal)

The “heart bombing” was one of dozens around the country in an effort seeded by the National Trust for Historic Places. The Trust says heart bombing “is the act of showering an older or historic place with tangible expressions of affection and devotion—preferably with lots of other place-lovers in tow,” and provides a quick how-to guide.

The Bay City event’s organizers told MLive they wanted to bring outsiders in to see the structures—and sense of place—that their community has to offer, or to inspire homebuyers to tackle the project of restoring a historic home. (And several of them have tackled restoration or small development projects themselves, so know how much inspiration it takes!)

The Bay City heart bombing team (Photo courtesy Kristi Kozubel)

The Bay City heart bombing team
(Photo courtesy Kristi Kozubal)

As a fan of Candy Chang’s “I Wish This Was” and similar efforts to recast vacant properties as assets and opportunities, I’m glad to see Bay City’s vacant historic buildings getting some love. Next year, perhaps we can get more of our communities sharing their feelings?

Milan’s downtown Tolan Square is a great example of tactical placemaking. Two summers ago, the city turned a piece of this street into a plaza with nothing more than a few heavy planters at each end and some picnic tables. For a budget of around $5,000, the community suddenly had a town square and events space—and one that could be undone quickly if the experiment turned out not to work.

A good space + a reason to be there = placemaking. (And a "coffee-off" is a great reason, in my opinion.) Photo from Milan Coffee Off.

A good space + a reason to be there = placemaking. (And a “coffee-off” is a great reason, in my opinion.) Photo from Milan Coffee Off.

The plaza hosts the farmers & artisans market, as well as events ranging from the Let’s Chill winter festival to the “Coffee Off,” Halloween movie screenings, and youth theater demonstrations.

After the first year, the city asked a local market research firm to evaluate the project. A survey of residents, business owners, and visitors found that the benefit of having the plaza outweighed the frustration of having the block closed to car traffic, as well as providing recommendations for how to improve on this existing level of approval. (For example, having more activities geared towards children would balance the frustration of parents who used to use this block to access the nearby elementary school.)

Tolan Square is a demonstration that placemaking projects don’t have to be grand and flashy—sometimes, smaller efforts can make a big impact on a place. It also points to the importance of programming public spaces: people value the space more than they mind the traffic inconvenience because of what happens there. As the evaluation found, people who participated in events at the plaza regularly were much more likely to state strong support for it. With the approach of conscious discussion, evaluation, and incremental change Milan is applying here, Tolan Square should continue to improve and contribute to downtown in years to come.

Building on success

One thing that stood out to me, both in the evaluation the city did and in my casual observation as a visitor stumbling onto the space, is that the business mix around Tolan Square may limit its impact on downtown. This is not an issue specific to Milan, by any stretch—many small downtowns struggle to create critical mass of storefront businesses that are predictably open in the evening and weekend hours when most retail activity occurs.

A street plaza can be created quickly an inexpensively: take one street and add a combination of barriers and seating to make clear that it's a space for people, not vehicles. Making it successful, though, requires programming activities in the short-term, and nurturing businesses that can mutually reinforce that activity in the long-term.

A street plaza can be created quickly and inexpensively: take one street and add a combination of barriers and seating to make clear that it’s a space for people, not vehicles. Making it successful, though, requires programming activities in the short-term, and nurturing businesses that can mutually reinforce that activity in the long-term.

As the evaluation noted, certain downtown businesses—those that were open evenings and weekends, and sold food and drink or retail shopping experiences—see significant benefit from the plaza. The evaluation report includes quotes from business owners:

“When the farmer’s market turnout is low, my sales are still double that of a typical Friday. But when the farmer’s market has a big turnout, my sales are triple.”

“On the best day of Winterfest, my sales were 15% greater than my previous best sales day in history!”

…but the evaluator also notes that “most downtown businesses are not positively affected” by events in the plaza, because they are office/service businesses that do not rely on (or generate) significant foot traffic, or because they are not open evenings and weekends, when events in the plaza typically occur.

The experience of the businesses that are successfully taking advantage of the plaza shows both the power of placemaking to support a healthy retail district, as well as an opportunity for new businesses to take advantage of the foot traffic generated by Tolan Square and its events—I look forward to coming back for some of these!

 

Vassar is a unique place. The small city, with a population less than 2,700 people, had six new businesses open in just over a year. The one-block downtown now offers a variety of experiences with a historic movie theatre, coffee shop, boutique, pet groomer, ice cream shop, gym, specialty bakery, and a variety of bars and restaurants. People in Vassar are friendly, community-minded, and truly excited about the city’s future.

In late 2015, the Vassar City Council hired a new city manager, Brian Chapman. He felt the community’s excitement and knew he had to support existing businesses, get the new ones in smoothly, and make sure the downtown would thrive. To Chapman, that meant transforming Vassar from a place people drive through, to a place people drive to. So he decided to focus on placemaking.

The site plan in it's current form is on the left, and the Vassar Vision concept plan is on the right.

The site plan in it’s current form is on the left, and the Vassar Vision concept plan is on the right.

Download the full report here

Download the full report here

After leading the PlacePOP project over the past many months, Vassar City Council unanimously approved to support the Vassar Vision public space concept plan earlier this week. We’re very proud of the work we’ve done in Vassar and look forward to following the public space enhancements throughout implementation.

The Vassar Vision 2016 PlacePOP Concept Plan report shares detail on the project site, methodology, concept plan, implementation recommendations, and community impact. We also want to share lessons we learned while working in Vassar, which we hope can help other local leaders implement successful placemaking projects in the future.

Lessons Learned

  1. Use a steering committee and give them power – Vassar Vision was initiated by the City, but the majority of creativity, outreach, and heavy lifting came from the steering committee. These volunteers were trusted advisors and decision-makers, and they worked hard because they felt ownership and pride in the work. Vassar Vision is their project.
  2. Local business owners sampling their food during the Taste & Talk.

    Local business owners sampling their food during the Taste & Talk.

    Get business owners to the table right away – Business owners have an incredible stake in the success of Vassar’s downtown. The steering committee identified right away that improvements to the project site needed to reflect nearby business owners’ needs and hopes, as well as the needs of residents and visitors. The committee kicked off the project with a successful and unique visioning event, the Taste & Talk. Here, incoming and existing business owners hosted tables with samples or products displays. At each table, we had a map of the project site and asked people to write down ideas of what could-be in the space. More than 200 people attended the event, which had the feel of a festival, rather than a city meeting. The Taste & Talk was a perfect way to invite business owners to the table and illustrate the value the community places on supporting these important community institutions.pullquote

  3. Use an outside facilitator to educate and manage the steering committee – Sometimes what people think they want and what placemaking and economic research suggests doesn’t always align. Bringing in an outside facilitator from the League helped bring an “expert” to the table to share research, case studies, and trends, to help residents and business owners see what could-be in Vassar. Most importantly, the steering committee needed to be well managed and facilitated, something city staff or volunteers don’t always have time to do. The support the League offered allowed the project to move forward smoothly and effectively.
  4. Create a brand and marketing campaign – After one of the first steering committee meetings, the group selected the name, logo, and color scheme for Vassar Vision. They wanted it to be identifiable and to stick so they could use the brand throughout implementation phases. It’s quick, easy to remember, and meaningful to the community.
  5. Plan events you actually want to attend – Visioning events and community meetings are rarely thrilling, unique events. It was important to the steering committee to host fun, creative, social, and engaging “meetings” that people would be excited to attend after work or on a Saturday afternoon, which they so successfully did through their public engagement events like the Taste & Talk.
  6. Engage like crazy and apply the feedback to the design renderings – The Vassar Vision project spanned for eight months and included about three idea generation events and at least six formal feedback opportunities. After each, the design team applied what they heard into the next version of the design and sent it back for further review. It takes time and patience, but fosters the best results.

    Collecting feedback during Vassar's annual RiverFest.

    Collecting feedback during Vassar’s annual RiverFest.

  7. Collect feedback in different ways The steering committee collected ideas and feedback by hosting a stand-alone public event, participating in an existing weekend festival, hosting meetings, sharing online surveys, having informal discussions, posting renderings in businesses, and presenting at formal council meetings. This ensured that a wide range of residents knew about the project and were able to participate in way that best suited them.
  8. Use existing community events as a way do more engagement – The steering committee took advantage of the annual RiverFest as a way to reach a wider audience. RiverFest already attracted hundreds of people to the project site so the steering committee set up boards and had volunteers grab passersby to share information and collect feedback.
  9. Collecting concept plan feedback before a City Council meeting.

    Collecting concept plan feedback before a City Council meeting.

    Test ideas through pop-ups – At RiverFest, the steering committee tested some of the ideas people came up with in past events and showed what could-be through temporary improvements to the space. They put out lawn furniture, games, and art to help people understand how much nicer the space could be with just a little effort.

  10. Have fun It’s clear many steering committee members enjoyed the work they were doing. They were proud of the project and had fun doing it. If people enjoy the work they’re doing, they’ll often work harder, longer, and create a better product. Similarly, keeping Vassar Vision on a clear timeline helped people realize the end was near. Working on forever-committees can allow people to lose momentum and focus. Make sure to create benchmarks, celebrate successes, keep it social, and don’t make it too much work for just one or two people.