by Melanie Piana, Ferndale City Council

ferndale-paid-parental-leave_-stock-photo-300x200I’ve watched my friends, women and men, prepare for a new baby with joy and excitement, and also concern about how much time they would have to bond and physically heal before heading back to work. Like many women in the workforce, my friends scraped together their paid time off with the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which allows them to take up to 12 weeks unpaid without fear of losing their job. In many instances, my female friends returned to work 4 to 6 weeks or less after giving birth, while their mates took off only a handful of days.

Who can afford to take unpaid days when a new baby or child arrives?  It’s the worst possible time not to earn a paycheck: diapers, baby food and child care all cost money. As a result, people are forced to accrue personal debt just so they can adequately tend to such a significant life-changing event.

Although my husband and I do not have children, my friends’ choices about what is right for them typically equate to not enough time to heal, bond with the baby, and readjust to life’s new routines. For cities, the general policy for maternity leave is determined by how much paid time off an employee can accrue. Based on years employed, the time off expected and allowed for maternity leave is unequally taken between males and females. Women take more, whereas men take less.

The private sector knows that flexible work environments are essential to achieving work-life balance, promoting female leadership, and increasing gender equality. Tech giants such as Google, Facebook, Netflix, and Amazon understand that paid parental leave increases options for women and families, and these types of benefits are highly sought by the next generation of workers.

Cities should be centers for talent attraction and cultivation, too. Who are the best stewards of taxpayer dollars? I argue that it’s talented people who innovate and solve complex and ingrained problems. Striking the right balance to provide taxpayer value and providing the right mix of benefits to attract workers is just as important in the public as the private sector.

Why this policy now?

We saw a need for a local government to become a more friendly workplace, to offer balance for families, and to show that our city cares about families and how policies can make a difference in a community.

Historically, talented workers were attracted to the benefits offered by cities even though the pay was typically a bit lower than the private sector. Now that most government entities share the same benefit packages of the private companies (401K / no pension), we need to be more aggressive in recruiting quality employees. Currently, the City requires that all leave related to pregnancy come from the employee; for those employees that don’t have enough vacation and sick saved up either would need to come back early or take their leave unpaid.

The City’s new policy will now provide up to 12 weeks paid time off for maternity, paternity, and adoption care leave — six weeks of new parental leave plus up to six weeks matched hour to hour paid time off. I encouraged Ferndale’s City Council to take this action.

The basic protections of the FMLA are not enough to establish a strong workforce in today’s competitive talent attraction and retention environment. Flexible work environments provide employees better opportunities to balance life circumstances. Ferndale focuses on teamwork, improve work-life balance, and increase employee productivity.

The municipal financial crisis necessitated Ferndale review how it delivers services and manages internal operations. Yes, we provide the same services, but City Council and City administration dissected how we delivered those services, and then figured out a way to improve quality and lower or maintain cost. As a result of continuous improvement and strategic investments, the city’s internal culture began to change, too. City Hall is not just a nine-to-five operation, especially with 24-hour access to online services.

With an eye toward a more flexible work environment, Ferndale’s paid family leave policy should employee turnover, job satisfaction, and overall productivity. It positions City administration to attract and retain talent to leadership positions. The new policy preserves working mothers’ income, thereby reducing economic disparities for women who are forced to choose between time at home with the baby or a paycheck and contributes to closing the gender wage gap between men and women.  Ferndale is known for acceptance and promotion of diversity. The new policy reinforces our strong community-wide commitment to diversity, acceptance, and progress.

I’m ecstatic that City Council unanimously approved this new policy, and I look forward to strengthening our support of women and families.

I express gratitude to our City Manager, April Lynch, and Jenny Campos, Human Resource Director at the City of Ferndale, for working closely with me to develop a policy that works for everyone.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.