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.

The MSU Center for Community and Economic Development is hosting their annual Contemporary Issues Institute on the topic of civility: Cultivating a Civil Society in an Era of Incivility.

Civility Conference Info

Event participants will have the opportunity to learn from and discuss with innovative thinkers and doers from across the state on how to promote more civil behavior in personal, public, private, and online realms.

The event will take place Friday, March 6 from 8:30 AM – 12:30 PM in the Michigan State Capitol BuildingThe event is free and open to the public, but registration is required. Complete the short registration form here.

In order to get a great conversation going in each session, the planning team hopes to attract a wide range of attendees. People in local government, community leaders, business owners, planners, academics, students, and others are all encouraged to attend! Be prepared for interactive sessions with a chance to share experiences, challenges, expertise, and lessons learned.

State Representative Andy Schor is offering opening remarks and the Flint Youth Theatre will bookend the event with short, theatrical interpretations of civility.

Session topics include:

  • Our Individual Character
  • Putting Civility in Place: How Placemaking & Interior Design can Promote Civility
  • Theories of Civility
  • Media, Technology & Incivility

Putting Civility in Place

With the League’s emphasis on placemaking, I am excited to moderate the session Putting Civility in Place. Research tells us that place has a huge impact on how people feel and act. For example, people who live in high-rise apartments are less trusting of their neighbors than single-family home residents, being in nature boosts altruistic behavior, and students’ grades improve when their school is designed to increase human connection. To explore this topic further, we have the following speakers lined up to discuss how place impacts people, communities, and workplaces:

Feel free to spread the word about this event, and don’t forget to RSVP!Civility Registration Button