Budapest-300x200Just because something is old doesn’t make it obsolete. Take the ancient city of Budapest. It has stood the test of time because it embodies people-oriented characteristics. They are reflected in the city’s walkability and connectivity, the human-scale of its buildings and streets, and the broad mix of uses available to residents.

Those very traits are more relevant now than they’ve been in the last 20 years, said Mark Nickita, president of Archive DS, at the League’s Suburban Summits in May. They are part of the urban lifestyle that baby boomers and millennials – the drivers of development – are seeking. Nickita pointed out that communities like Ann Arbor that offer that vibrant, dense, pedestrian-oriented environment weathered the recession far better than most Michigan cities. Suburbs that strive to create a similar sense of place and make walkability a priority are positioning themselves for success.

Revenue Opportunities
Creating a sense of place can result in significant economic benefits to the community. Nickita suggests taking a serious look at available land and buildings and rethinking alternative uses that can enhance the bottom line.

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Kroger – downtown Birmingham

He shared the examples of a vacant Kmart shopping center in Troy – the same land area as downtown Northville – and the old Livonia Mall – the same size as downtown Plymouth. Redeveloping these sites as dense, mixed-use, walkable properties can bring in much higher tax revenue. For example, a Kroger shopping center in the suburbs typically pays annual property taxes of about $16,000 per acre. A Kroger store built in a much denser, walkable area such as downtown Birmingham brings in almost four times as much – about $62,000 per acre.

Reuse Opportunities
Infusing your community with a vibrant sense of place also presents opportunities to reuse buildings and properties through creative zoning and visioning. Nickita suggests taking areas that the city controls and making the best of them with forward-thinking design that includes things like walkability, bike access, and the needs of seniors.

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The Rail District – Birmingham

He cited the example of The Rail District in Birmingham, a set of old industrial buildings with a lot of vacancies. The city transformed the area into a mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented district. By loosening up their zoning policies and creating a visionary plan, the city now has a cool, connected area with unique uses they never would have thought of, such as interior design studios, Robot Garage and a swimming school for babies.

Another example is the Stiles District in Rochester Hills. The site housed an old two-story school building that sat vacant for years. A developer is now repurposing the school and creating a mixed-use space that residents can walk to and enjoy.

City Flexibility
Nickita advises that the key to creative property re-use is flexibility in zoning codes. It’s impossible to conceive of all the possible uses that developers might present. But if the city is open to considering new and innovative proposed uses, they’re on the right track to creating an exciting sense of place that encourages even more development.

Big box stores can have second lives, as Westland's Circuit City to City Hall renovation, completed in 2014, demonstrates.

Big box stores can have second lives, as Westland’s Circuit City to City Hall renovation demonstrates. (top: League staff, 2015; bottom: LoopNet listing, 2012)

In 2012, the City of Westland set aside plans to build a new city hall–the long-needed replacement to a ’60s vintage building that was literally rotting from a high water table–in favor of buying and renovating an abandoned Circuit City on Warren Road.  This choice saved nearly $5 million (a third of the original budget!) while netting twice as much square footage, allowing the city to consolidate its cable channel, Youth Services, economic development, and other functions into a single building. As a bonus, the city has one fewer vacant and blighted property to monitor.

Summit participants offer their ideas for the vacant parcels next to Westland City Hall.

Summit participants offer their ideas for the vacant parcels next to Westland City Hall.

This success story made Westland City Hall the perfect venue for the League’s first Suburban Summit, with teams from suburban communities around southeast Michigan gathering to discuss strategies for helping their neighborhoods and commercial corridors mature and adapt to changing societal needs. (A second summit was held the next day at Fifth/Third Ballpark in Comstock Park for West Michigan communities.)

Ellen Dunham-Jones leads discussion of strategies for dealing with shuttered shopping malls.

Ellen Dunham-Jones leads discussion of strategies for dealing with shuttered shopping malls.

Georgia Tech’s Ellen Dunham-Jones (watch her TED talk!) joined architect and Birmingham City Commissioner Mark Nickita to lead discussion of the possibilities for updating the commercial corridors and neighborhoods of the last half century to meet the growing demand for walkable communities and a wider variety of housing choices: as families with school-aged children become a smaller share of households, communities must offer some draw beyond the formula of a good school district and single-family homes with enough bedrooms. This formula worked from the 1950s through the 1980s, when Baby Boomers and Millennials were growing up, but we know that the preferences of those demographics have shifted to living in places with more, well, place to them.

While those post-war suburbs are starting without some of the assets that support placemaking in older downtowns and neighborhood nodes, they have a huge asset in their huge, single-owner commercial parcels.  As Nickita pointed out, a vacant Kroger and its expanse of cracking parking lot may offer the same acreage as all of downtown Plymouth, or the entire Mackinac Island townsite, with relatively few complications standing in the way of implementing a new strategy.  A single large commercial parcel can therefore support the creation of an entire new walkable, mixed-use neighborhood center, without any changes or disruption required in the surrounding area.

This is by no means a fast or easy process, but a committed city with engaged private development partners can combine complete streets, green infrastructure, good urban design, careful market research, and updated policies to provide their residents–new and old–with the sense of place that will serve them for the next few generations.

Vision-Wkshp-Table-Report-with-WarrenA buzz of excitement filled the auditorium of the Benton Harbor Public Library as about 100 people gathered to share their ideas, visions and concerns for Dwight Pete Mitchell City Center Park. The occasion was the April 14 Community Visioning Workshop for Benton Harbor’s PlacePlan, which they have cleverly dubbed Square 1: Coming Together @ City Center.

Under the guidance of MSU professors Wayne Beyea and Warren Rauhe, MSU students, and League staff, community members congregated at tables and expressed their thoughts on what they did and didn’t like about the park, and how they’d like to see it improved. Their personalities really shone when it came time for them so share their ideas with the whole group. Table spokespeople energetically delivered their group’s ideas with their own unique style, often with clever team names such as Visionaries, Trendsetters, and Soul Providers. The next step is an open house, scheduled for June 16, where community members will have an opportunity to review and comment on preliminary design plans for City Center Park.

The PlacePlans process is also moving forward in the other seven cities the League is working with this year. At the first Heart of Monroe community workshop, community leaders, business owners and residents dreamed of ways to convert an underutilized alley into a pedestrian connector to unify the downtown area. During Farmington/Farmington Hills’ first community workshop, participants offered ideas on rethinking the relationship of the 10 Mile/Orchard Lake intersection to surrounding neighborhoods. At enLiVen Lathrup Village‘s second community workshop, residents shared their opinions on preliminary design plans for creating a true “village center” on the site surrounding Lathrup Village Hall.

And League staff has been meeting with stakeholders in Boyne City, Niles, Saginaw, and Traverse City to lay the groundwork for upcoming community workshops.

More information on all of these projects is available on the League’s Placemaking site.

Sprawl – we know it when we see it.  We all live with sprawl in some way or other, but do we ever stop to think how it impacts our lives?  Or do we just go through the motions of everyday life and become comfortably numb to our daily activities and surroundings? And it impacts us financially, as well.  We pay a lot more for sprawl development than for compact development.

Sun City West Sprawl 300x225A recent trip to the Phoenix area, hit me harder than usual.  It wasn’t my first time there, but my awareness and critique of how we build communities become increasingly unforgiving as time goes by.  If I were asked to describe Arizona in a few short words, it would go something like this:  cement pavement, strip malls, franchise restaurants, multilane roads (in one direction), boundless traffic, breathtaking views, soothing mountains, relentless sunshine, blue sky, rich history. Talk about divergent narratives – and all of them are true.  I’m not going to espouse why everyone should experience the beauty of Arizona once in their lifetime, I will leave that to the travel books. I just want to share (or vent is more like it) a few thoughts on poor planning – the bane of our everyday life.

I’m not a trained traffic engineer or certified planner, but I don’t have to be – and neither do you – to know what’s working and what’s not.  We just have to stop and think about how we go about our daily lives, and ask ourselves a few basic questions:  how much time do we spend in a car?  Do we have a local coffee shop or restaurant that we can easily get to?  What do we consider to be the heart of the community?  Can we walk to the library?  (Check out Strong Towns, an organization advocating for vibrant and resilient communities, which offers ten simple questions called the Strong Towns Strength Test to test the strength of your community.)

Most of us know someone who has fled the frigid north for the year-round warmer climates.  On my trip to Phoenix, I visited a friend who lives in a senior community, west of Phoenix.  It is an award winning community development which has separated the housing from shopping, restaurants, and cultural venues.  Sound familiar?  With an aging population, there should be less reliance on a car, not more.  So why are they building and expanding (construction can be seen everywhere) the road system?  The lanes are already confusing, and it’s difficult to access stores and restaurants that you see on the other side of the median.   At all hours of the day, traffic is heavy.  I saw no evidence of traffic calming devices or alternative modes of transportation.  That means you have to get in your car (or take your life in your hands in a golf cart) to get anywhere.  Even though a Starbucks coffee shop was only 2 blocks away from where I was staying, there was no way that I or anybody else was going to feel safe walking over there.  Even the most foolhardy would not risk crossing the multilane roads which lacked any clear markings for pedestrians

verrado pic 300x225I did, however, see an example of a planned community, which has all the potential for great community living. It is called Verrado, in Buckeye, Arizona, west of Phoenix. It is built on the principles of New Urbanism.  Once you get off the freeway, you truly enter an oasis of peaceful, walkable neighborhood living, with the presence of bike and walking paths everywhere.  Although there were a fair amount of people in the small town center on a Sunday, a second visit during the week, showed a lot less people.  It was clear that this community is in its infancy.  More businesses and restaurants need to open to attract more people before it becomes a true destination.

Of course, we don’t have to go to Arizona to find examples of uncontrolled sprawl.  We can go anywhere in this country and find it, including right here in Michigan.  We are becoming an older nation, and unlike previous generations, as boomers age, they are choosing to age in place.  That means that communities will have to be ready to meet their growing needs. There is no time to waste.  We need to build more mixed-use communities, retrofit our suburbs, and consider alternative modes of transportation that will accommodate these challenges.  And in the end, we will be providing a great quality of life for all generations.