This week, the League released the latest issue of our Review magazine. I’m proud to announce that it includes a new feature, “PlacePlans: Where Are They Now?”, which gives us an opportunity to check in with some of the cities who participated in the MSHDA-MSU-MML PlacePlans pilot program and see what progress they’ve made.

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In this issue, starting on p. 21, the focus is downtown Jackson, where we explore what factors laid the groundwork for their burgeoning downtown development boom. You can read the whole thing at http://www.mml.org/resources/publications/mmr/issues/jan-feb-2017/review-jan-feb-2017-web.pdf but here’s an excerpt focused on the lessons other communities can learn from Jackson:

While every city is unique, many core principles of place-based redevelopment port well from one community to the next. Jackson’s experience highlights the following lessons that apply broadly:

  1. Prioritize investment areas as a community and stick to that vision

City Manager Patrick Burtch credits the City Council with in Jackson with coming to a consensus several years ago that investing in downtown, the City’s core, is the top priority. Burtch equates downtown with the “nucleus of the cell” and says that “the cell dies without it.” Investing public dollars always comes with public relations hits, says Burtch, but your elected and appointed officials must “be willing to stay on that path, because you have to spend money to make money.”

  1. Public space investments create positive momentum and catalyze large private investments

John Burtka, President of Grand River Brewery and partner in several of the ongoing downtown developments, cites the Dig Jackson investments as the crucial launching pad because it told the world, “Hey, we’re serious!” Burtch and Burtka agree those investments changed the mindset of the private sector about Jackson.

  1. Visuals are crucial inspirational tools

Pushed by Burtch, the Beckett & Raeder team developed design renderings for Dig Jackson that went far beyond the bounds of normal streetscape improvements, into master planning and the beginnings of a form-based zoning approach. Burtch says those plans have been invaluable in convincing skeptical community leaders and investors to participate. “3D architectural renderings provide a vision that is not always easily understood by those that are typically acting in differing disciplines,” he says.

  1. Engage anchor institutions, even those not located in the priority geographic area

The Jackson Anchor Initiative is an excellent case study on the power of getting important institutions rallied behind, and often leading, the community’s vision. In Jackson’s case, it has led to significant investments in downtown from institutions that are not even located there. According to Dr. Burtch, “the Anchor Initiative provides a significant measure of political coverage for a City Council that must make decisions regarding public investment in the urban core that are easily misunderstood”.

  1. Communicate through every medium possible

The City engaged the University of Michigan’s Citizen Interaction Design program to develop an excellent set of communication tools about the Dig Jackson project (see examples at digjackson.com), helping community leaders to allay fears about the disruption and costs associated with construction.

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.

pumpkinsRobina 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.

animal-showPop-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.”

Collecting feedback

craftingThrough 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.

Lessons

the-spaceSince 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.

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Baskin-Robbins Cregar’s Pickwick House Restaurant IHOP

What??? You don’t see Baskin-Robbins, IHOP, and Cregar’s Pickwick House Restaurant in these photos??? I do!

I grew up in the North Rosedale Park neighborhood of Detroit’s Grandmont Rosedale area. The section of Grand River Avenue between Warwick and Evergreen was my commercial playground. In my mind’s eye, my friends and I are riding our bikes up to Baskin-Robbins – almost every day the first summer it opened. After school, we’re walking over to Cregar’s Pickwick House Restaurant and ordering up a Coke and fries at the counter. And on Saturday mornings, we’re heading to IHOP with our families to try out all their scrumptious varieties of pancakes and syrup.

2016-4-15-Charette-audience-300x200That’s what I was thinking about as I attended the April 15 kick-off of the CNU Legacy Charette for Grandmont Rosedale. It was held at Bushnell Congregational Church – where I enjoyed many junior high dances with Kathy, Joann, Zachary and all my other Cooke School friends. Some of the people in attendance remembered those days, but all were interested in making that stretch of Grand River Avenue vibrant again.

2016-4-15-Charrette-presenters-300x200More than 50 residents and business owners attended the session, which began with a presentation by two urban planners from Florida-based Dover, Kohl & Partners. The project called “Making Grand River Avenue more walkable, bikeable and accessible” was lead by Dover, Kohl & Partners and local support came from Design Team Plus, Hall Planning & Engineering Inc. The project sponsor was the Grandmont Rosedale Development Corporation and CNU.

The first order of business was to gauge the type of commercial corridor street design that appealed to the audience. The planners presented photos of a variety of street scenes, which people could vote on with electronic clickers. Not surprisingly, streets with attractive storefronts, lush landscaping, wide sidewalks, and safe crosswalks were the hands-down winners.

Next, the participants met in small groups to discuss their desires for Grand River Avenue. With large aerial maps of the area at each table, the men and women got busy sketching out ideas and creating lists of their top five priorities. After an hour, each group presented their priority lists, which contained a lot of similarities. Among the most common themes were:

  • Calming measures for Grand River, such as a boulevard or angled parking in the median
  • Safe, well-marked crosswalks
  • Attractive storefronts and interesting businesses to draw people to the area
  • Wide sidewalks
  • Beautification features, such as landscaping and public art

The public design workshop continued throughout the weekend. Now, the planners from Dover, Kohl & Partners will review all the input they gathered and presented a more refined plan at CNU 24 in June.

As the weather turned warmer and sunnier late this week, Theresa Zajac knew she had trouble on her hands. As Vice President of the Southwest Detroit Business Association, she was working to convene a group of neighborhood residents, business owners and other interested parties to discuss housing needs and redevelopment of vacant land on Friday evening, as part of the Congress for the New Urbanism’s Legacy Charrette program. The event was scheduled to take place at a local high school, but she was afraid the weather would make it unlikely that many people would choose to be inside on a beautiful summer-like Friday night. So she thought on her feet, reaching out to local business owners and invited guests to change the plan: the neighborhood meeting would be outdoors, on the patio of a local favorite bar.

Her last-minute change worked. A multiethnic, multigenerational and multilingual group of people who care about Southwest Detroit gathered in a casual, fun setting and got down to business. The topics they covered weren’t light: environmental justice, crime and low income housing, predatory housing speculators, immigration policy, the state system of funding cities, to name a few. But the setting andIMG_3421 the camaraderie enabled the group to tackle them with enthusiasm and optimism.

It’s an example of community engagement done well, a tricky accomplishment in today’s world of distractions competing for our time. The League has observed and participated in many of these efforts and we can say the same old public meeting, Monday night at city hall, often doesn’t work. It’s important to think differently if you truly want to get community conversations going. So be like Theresa and improvise a bit. And you can’t or don’t have time, ask your target audience to plan the party. Just don’t be surprised when they show up.

This work, called “Building affordable and market rate housing in Southwest without displacement,” is being done as a lead up to CNU24. The project was led by Dhiru Thadani from Washington D.C. with support from NederveldZimmerman/Volk Associates and City Form Detroit.