We’re really excited to announce PlacePOP, our new placemaking & engagement consulting service. PlacePOP is a low-cost, high-impact approach to inclusive planning that communities can use to test ideas, engage residents, and strengthen support for place-based projects.

PlacePOP in action at the Boyne City PlacePlans event.

PlacePOP in action at the Boyne City PlacePlans event.

Working with local partners, the League will plan, promote, and execute an event that demonstrates how activating a space can catalyze a community. Large scale planning takes a lot of time, money, and resources, and often leaves residents feeling disconnected and unfulfilled. PlacePOP is a “lighter, quicker, cheaper” approach to planning that brings people together, improves public spaces, and guides future development. PlacePOP can:

  • Empower people to experiment with place as a way to improve their community
  • Build local capacity and tests creative ideas to move planning projects forward
  • Promote interest in a specific, underutilized area
  • Educate local stakeholders on the impact of quality placemaking
  • Engage a wide audience of residents, visitors, and local stakeholders to share ideas, give feedback, and build ownership that guides capital improvement projects

There are a ton of examples of how communities have used temporary, tactical placemaking to guide local planning. For example, communities can:

  • Use pop-up retail to test demand and build buzz around a vacant storefront
  • Activate an underutilized lot using temporary outdoor furniture and family-friendly activities to see if the community should build a permanent pocket park
  • Improve walkability between two key areas to see if it changes people’s patterns
  • Use art, music, lighting, and seating options to create interest in a public space

Some PlacePOP History

Kids share their ideas at the 2014 Berkley Art Bash.

Kids share their ideas at the 2014 Berkley Art Bash.

We started brainstorming the idea of PlacePOP last year, after working with the city of Berkley on a place-based downtown planning project. Through previous planning efforts, the city identified a downtown intersection (12 Mile and Robina) as a potential catalyst for economic development. The city and elected officials wanted to engage residents and collect ideas of what “could be” in that area.

We worked with a steering committee of residents, the DDA, business owners, elected officials, and city staff to lead an impactful engagement event during Berkley’s annual Art Bash. We rented patio furniture, displayed local art, put out sidewalk chalk, and programmed the space with a yoga class in the middle of the afternoon. Most importantly, we asked people to brainstorm how they wanted to use the space. We collected a ton of ideas and the city was blown away by people’s interest in doing something dramatic, like closing the road to become a pedestrian plaza.

“Our city has several catalytic developments in our master plan, and thanks to the League’s efforts, we are making significant progress in achieving one of our highest priority projects,” said Steve Baker, a Berkley councilmember and an active leader on this project. “Placemaking is even more vibrant in Berkley thanks to the MML’s support!”

Collecting  feedback on draft designs at the 2015 Berkley Art Bash.

Collecting feedback on draft designs at the 2015 Berkley Art Bash.

Berkley residents and visitors will soon see these efforts come to fruition since the city is currently working with a consulting team to come up with detailed schematics on the intersection’s improvements.

Because we saw so much value and impact in this work, we decided to go big or go home. We bought a trailer, filled it with furniture, games, and engagement materials, and started incorporating PlacePOP into some of our PlacePlans projects (check out what we did with Boyne City last month). We also worked with the city of Lansing and local stakeholders on a really fun project just last week which focused on the Capitol Avenue corridor. Check out details on the project and pictures from last week’s event.

How PlacePOP works

The beauty of PlacePOP is that each project is unique since it’s 100% tailored to the community For example, communities can simply rent the trailer and its contents for under $1,000, or we can lead a deeper project with engagement, event facilitation, and a project report. Generally speaking, the process is as follows:

  1. Re-imagining a parking space during Convert Capitol Ave in Lansing.

    Re-imagining a parking space during Convert Capitol Ave in Lansing.

    Get started – We’ll meet with core stakeholders to identify project goals, partners, and opportunities. The group will explore options for the demonstration project, establish goals for the exercise, and explore expanded outreach, education, and communication opportunities.

  1. Work out project details – We’ll create a preliminary project plan with event logistics, assignments, materials, partners, activities, and communication strategies.
  1. Host the event – With the help of local partners and volunteers, we’ll facilitate the placemaking demonstration project during a planned community event. We’ll set up, staff, and guide volunteers to accomplish project goals.
  1. Debrief – We’ll host a debrief meeting with core stakeholders to recap the event, articulate lessons learned, and identify opportunities moving forward.
  1. Report out – We’ll prepare a report that summarizes the project’s process, feedback and data collected at the event, and recommendations to keep the momentum going to implement longer-term planning.

So let’s get going!

Doing engagement in Lansing during Convert Capital Ave

Getting great ideas in Lansing during Convert Capital Ave

If your community is thinking of ways to build capacity and encourage development, invite us over for coffee so we can brainstorm with you. Contact us anytime about bringing PlacePOP to your community:

Sarah Craft
Michigan Municipal League Project Coordinator
scraft@mml.org
734-669-6328

We’re looking forward to working with you!

When my wife and I bought our home, we were hoping to find something like a duplex or condo in walking distance to downtown Ypsilanti–to no avail. While there were dozens of single-family homes available at the time, only one duplex came up in 6 months of looking, and the condos available were all in complexes on major roads towards the edge of town. We ended up in a single-family home as the best-available choice, rather than because it was what we really wanted.

A new study by the National Association of Realtors and Portland State University suggests this is a common problem. Among other topics, their Community & Transportation Preferences Survey of 3,000 adults across the country’s metro areas looked at the homes (and places) people live in currently vs. the homes they’d like to live in.

A full 25% of respondents reported that they currently lived in detached, single-family homes, but would prefer to live in an apartment, townhouse, or condo in a more walkable neighborhood.

NAR_HousingMismatch_July15Even though I’ve personally suffered from this particular failure of the housing market, this number is still surprising and significant: 1 in 4 adults living in our major metro areas would give up their single-family home to live in a more walkable neighborhood.

So why don’t they already live there?  The NAR study doesn’t delve into that question, but it’s a safe bet that lack of available supply plays a role.  The survey shows that nearly half of respondents, across age groups, would prefer an “attached” home in a walkable neighborhood over a single family home that requires more driving.  Yet across Michigan’s metro areas, only about 30% of housing units are attached of any kind, and a large share of those are in locations that could hardly be called “walkable”: massive complexes of bland beige-carpeted apartments sandwiched between strip malls on busy arterial roads are not what these respondents have in mind.

As further evidence of this supply/demand mismatch, where we do have quality multi-family home options in walkable downtowns and neighborhoods, Michigan is grappling with affordability problems: whether Midtown Detroit, downtown Grand Rapids, or downtown Royal Oak, housing options are scarce but highly sought-after, and prices are rising accordingly. Nearest to me, downtown Ann Arbor apartments are now leasing for as much as $2,000 per month, for a single bedroom: even the hundreds of new apartments being built every year can’t seem to make a dent in the pent-up demand for this living option.

While much coverage of the study focuses on millennials, the findings appear to hold up across generational cohorts:

Across generations, about as many Americans want attached homes in walkable locations as want detached homes in conventional developments.

Across generations, about as many Americans want attached homes in walkable locations as want detached homes in conventional developments.

Realtors obviously have a direct role in getting people into the homes they want, and when they say “more and more homebuyers are expressing interest in living in mixed-use, transit-accessible communities,” they’re in a strong position to know what homebuyers want, and how the market is failing them.  Helping to correct this market failure and create more of the places that people wish they were living in is one of the most important outcomes that our placemaking work can have.

Cars are king in most Michigan suburbs. We have designed our suburbs for efficiency of process, where uses are separated and car-oriented, said Ellen Dunham-Jones, co-author of Retrofitting Suburbia, at the League’s Suburban Summits in May. But in recent years, suburbs have been hit with a double-punch from the struggling economy and changing demographics, leaving them with empty buildings and properties in need of a new life.

That’s a game-changer, says Dunham-Jones, making efficiency of place the watchword of the day as we consider how to redevelop our suburbs. The efficiency of more compact, urban development can provide cities with lower infrastructure costs and higher tax revenue per acre. At the same time, it offers millennials and baby boomers the walkable, urban lifestyle they crave.

As suburbs consider how to retrofit underutilized properties, Dunham-Jones emphasizes first knowing why the site died. That will help determine which of the following design strategies is the most appropriate, although many older retrofits have some degree of all three strategies:

  • Reinhabit – use the building for a more community-service purpose
  • Redevelop – build a more dense, urban, walkable place
  • Regreen – turn the site into a park or open space

For more details on these three strategies, please read an earlier blog, “Creating a Purposeful New Life for Old Suburban Sites”.

21st Century Challenges

Retrofitting can also help suburbs address a variety of 21st century challenges – everything from auto-dependence and jobs to an aging population and environmental issues.

Auto-dependence
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Many of today’s consumers would like to ditch their cars and walk or take transit to a variety of places – a pretty big challenge in our auto-oriented suburbs. At Mashpee Commons in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, developers addressed that problem by building a quaint New England village on the parking lot of an old strip center. The new development boasts first floor shops with apartments above, as well as civic space.

Public Health
The sedentary lifestyle of the suburbs has contributed to an epidemic of chronic diseases, such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Human sprawl and suburban sprawl correlate, says Dunham-Jones. People in urban areas tend to lead more active lifestyles, so she advises introducing more physical activity and walkability and making streets safer. One example she offered is the dying One Hundred Oaks Mall in Nashville, Tennessee. Vanderbilt University took over the second floor of the mall for a medical center. The center is getting better patient results as people love the convenient location and the chance to shop while waiting for their appointment.

Social Capital
Suburban social life used to revolve around schools, but with a rising number of childless households, people are seeking new “third” places when they can build community. A group in Oak Cliff, Texas came up with a creative solution to that challenge along a boarded-up block of businesses.  For two days, the Build a Better Block group transformed the block with art in the store windows, street trees, food trucks and more. Two small ordinance changes from the city enabled some of these changes to become permanent.

Equity and Affordability
Transportation costs are higher in the suburbs, particularly for people in the lower half of the income bracket. They often spend more on transportation than housing, so affordable housing near affordable transportation is essential. At Cottages on Greene Street in Rhode Island, the answer to affordable housing came in the form of dense, quaint cottages that seamlessly transition into the surrounding commercial area.

Jobs
TAXI-Denver-300x200
Attracting and retaining millennial workers is tricky as most of them have no interest in the “Dilbert-style” cubicles typically available in suburban office parks, says Dunham-Jones.  Denver, Colorado has the right idea with their TAXI development, a former taxi garage that now houses cool, loft-style office space and even a swimming pool made from shipping containers.

Energy
As energy costs escalate, energy conservation becomes a bigger concern. At the Mueller development in Austin, Texas, a former airport is being developed into an urban community where all the houses are on a smart grid and use solar power.

Water
Water can be a challenge on several fronts – your community may have too much, too little, or the quality has been compromised. At Northgate Urban Center in North Seattle, Washington, the mayor was able to improve water quality by negotiating a deal that enabled daylighting a creek that had been routed through a pipe. The creek is now an amenity for the new condos and senior housing that surrounds it.

As with the three design strategies for retrofitting suburbs, we need layered solutions to deal with all the 21st century challenges as well, says Dunham-Jones. We need to change the metrics of success.

 

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.

Kroger-Birmingham-300x200

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.