Last week I had the chance to check out progress on part of Kalamazoo’s PlacePlan: a “road diet” on a section of Portage Street, passing through the Edison neighborhood’s historic Washington Square district.

Portage Street had suffered the same fate as numerous urban roads: in the name of carrying the most cars at the fastest speed, the asphalt was widened over time until it squeezed the sidewalks up against the storefronts, contributing to the decline of the businesses in this area and the decay of the buildings.

In August 2014, pedestrians in Washington Square faced traffic zipping around a blind curve, uncomfortable close to the too-narrow sidewalk.

In August 2014, pedestrians in Washington Square faced traffic zipping around a blind curve, uncomfortably close to the too-narrow sidewalk.

As a result of our work with Kalamazoo through the 2014 round of PlacePlans, the city has implemented a light-weight reconfiguration of Portage Street: it now has 3 lanes (one in each direction and a left turn lane) in place of 4.  This pulls traffic away from the curb, making the street less hostile to pedestrians, it pulls cars turning left out of the flow of traffic, reducing rear-end crashes, and it provides room for several blocks for a bike line connecting Washington Square to downtown.  Driving through the area at 5:15pm, when the pavement should be at its busiest, traffic was smooth and there were no significant delays, even though the change is still new and unfamiliar to drivers.

In the "trial" stage of the road change, traffic is pushed away from the curb--even just white paint gives people some breathing room.

In the “trial” stage of the road change, traffic is pushed away from the curb–even just white paint gives people some breathing room.

Right now, the change is a test–essentially just changing the paint and the traffic signal timing–but the city is planning to rebuild the street in a few years.  The trial period will let Kalamazoo figure out whether to continue and improve on the 3-lane version of the road when they rebuild, or go back to the drawing board: either way, they’ll be entering that process with good experience and traffic data.

What’s happening outside the right-of-way is also pretty exciting: the Kalamazoo Land Bank owns several properties in the area, and four once-vacant storefronts have filled up since we delivered their PlacePlan: a fitness studio, sandwich shop, credit union branch, and artisans market inhabit the newly renovated spaces.  While we can’t claim credit for the storefront rehabs–the Land Bank came to the table with these buildings already in-progress–these businesses and those that join them will offer more evidence of the power of coordinated public and private investment to make great places.

This building, vacant a year ago, has had a facelift and hosts three new businesses; the corner space is still under construction, but the building looks great even in the too-early November twilight.

This building, vacant a year ago, has had a facelift and hosts three new businesses; the corner space is still under construction, but the building looks great even in the too-early November twilight.

Kalamazoo’s next step is the farmers’ market charrette coming up November 19-20: as their market bursts at the seams, they’re planning out the next stage of its growth–including how it connects to Washington Square and other areas nearby.

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!