We’re excited to see phase three of the Robina Plaza project underway in the city of Berkley. For the past two years, we’ve partnered with the community to explore their vision of transforming the intersection of Robina at 12 Mile into a more pedestrian-friendly plaza. Learn more about the 2014 pop-up visioning here, and the 2015 design feedback project here.
Robina Plaza came about during the community’s master plan update process a few years ago. Through resident engagement and research, the intersection was identified as a potential catalyst for development; it could become “the place” people think of when they picture downtown Berkley and give people a place to hang out, host events, eat take out, run into friends, or just enjoy some quiet time.
Over the past few years, there has been positive support for converting the space into a pedestrian-only plaza, so this fall, the city temporarily closed the road and is testing traffic flow, parking, deliveries, how people use the space, and local business performance. The city closed one north and south block of Robina (keeping 12 Mile open, of course) on September 19 and is re-opening the road on November 18. Information the city and DDA collect during this time will inform what comes next for the space.
Pop-up activity and testing out closures like this are crucial steps a community should take before making a big, long-term, and expensive decision to close a road permanently. We commend the city and local leaders for being open to this sort of creativity and really doing their research before making a final decision.
The Berkley Parks & Recreation department has taken the lead on activating the space. They put out furniture and decorations (some of which was rented from the League’s PlacePOP program) and are hosting numerous events throughout the closure.
Parks & Recreation Director Theresa McArleton said her department hosts about 15 major events each year in their community building and parks across the city. She said being right downtown in Robina Plaza supports a different and exciting vibe that has made their fall programming incredibly successful.
“The space is easily walkable from multiple neighborhoods, and kids from all elementary schools have participated in events,” McArleton said. “You can see parents excited to see each other and just relax in the seating we put out, while kids run around safely in this new fun hang out space. Seeing people use the space in these ways has been very gratifying.”
Through each event, organizers are doing their best to collect comments, feedback, concerns, and new ideas for the space. One of the biggest issues that has come up is who will maintain the plaza – who will keep the space clean, plants watered, and furniture tidy? Some nearby business owners are also concerned with who will be using the space during non-event times, how they’ll accept deliveries in the adjacent alley, and how the plaza will impact their business. All concerns they’re able to test out during this temporary closure.
Some residents are also having a hard time picturing what the space could look like in the future. The furniture and activities Berkley is using is a little make-shifty – which is low cost, fun, and eclectic – but also concerns some residents that the permanent changes would be similar.
To help future communities on this front, pop-up experts at Better Block just announced Wikiblock, a free, open-source toolkit of designs for benches, chairs, planters, stages, fences, and kiosks. If you don’t have a great carpenter in your community who has the time an energy to build all this from scratch, Better Block’s designs can be downloaded and taken to a makerspace where a CNC router (a computer programmed cutting machine) can cut them out of sheets of plywood in minutes.
Since McArleton and her team are doing a lot of the heavy lifting for the plaza, I asked her what tips she could share with other communities interested in doing a similar project:
- Give yourself plenty of time to prepare – Berkley’s prep-period was a bit short because by the time they decided they wanted to test the closure this year, it was already late August. With more time upfront, communities can build an inclusive steering committee to help generate ideas, do outreach, and host events, which can make staff commitments lighter and possibly lead to better implementation.
- Have a big launch party – Get people in the space right away so people know about the project and come back on their own. Fun and social launch parties with food tend to bring a crowd!
- Make it family-friendly – If kids are happy, parents are happy. Programming kid-friendly events will be sure to get families in the space, but make sure parents and adults without kids are also welcome – because they’re the ones who will likely be spending money at the nearby businesses!
- Be realistic & flexible – Like anything else, expect some people to dislike the activities, designs, and project as a whole. Try to pay attention to naysayers and dig deeper into the specific issues they’re having that can better inform the project’s implementation. Similarly, when people offer new ideas, really take them into consideration. If you can, test out the new idea and see what everyone else thinks.
After this test period is over in mid-November, the community will determine clear next steps and we’ll be sure to share updates on the project here on our placemaking page.