The pre-feasibility study looked at several routings for coast-to-coast service, as well as connections to existing Amtrak services.

The pre-feasibility study looked at several routings for coast-to-coast service, as well as connections to existing Amtrak services.

Rail service connecting Detroit, Ann Arbor, Lansing, Grand Rapids, and Holland?  Yes, please! With the amount of travel we do just between the League’s Ann Arbor and Lansing offices—let alone across the state—it’s easy to see the benefit of the “Coast-to-Coast Rail” service described in a new ridership and cost estimate study.

The study is the product of nearly five years of work by the Michigan By Rail coalition, in partnership with MDOT and local transit agencies across the state. It dives deep into current travel patterns and the conditions of Michigan’s existing rail network to evaluate the costs and benefits of several possible routings across the state.  Their conclusion: that new train service running 4 to 8 daily round-trips at maximum speeds of 79-110 miles per hour between our state’s major cities is possible, and would be popular.

Forfeit hours of my life to staring at the bumper in front of me, or relax on the train?  Hmmm, tough choice.

Dedicate hours of my life to staring at the bumper in front of me, or relax on the train? Hmmm, tough choice.

This service could give me back 2 hours of productive time every time I need to go to Lansing for a meeting, rather than spending that time staring at the freeway in front of me—I’m writing this blog post from the bus on my morning commute, after all—and the ticket would certainly be cheaper than mileage + parking. Outside of work, when we take the kids to visit family in Grand Rapids, they’d certainly be happier riding the train than stuck in their carseats for two hours and change.

The study says I’m not alone–over a million people a year could be expected to use an 8-round-trip, 110mph rail option on any of the three routings examined. The preliminary financial analysis shows this ridership could actually let the service run a strong enough annual profit to cover Michigan’s capital costs of getting it up and running–not something that can be said of most road projects!

Of course, the real potential of this rail service relies on coordinating it with other pieces of the travel network to address the “last mile” question: how do I get from the train station to where I’m really going? Unless my destination is within half a mile of the station, I’ll need to pair the train service with something else: bikeshare or Uber or a seamless connection to local bus service, if I’m going a couple miles; something like ZipCar at the train station if I’m going a bit further.

The Dearborn PlacePlan included a look at how the new train station could support new mixed-use development.

The Dearborn PlacePlan included a look at how that city’s Amtrak station could support new mixed-use development.

What happens around the stations will also be important to making the service successful: people who live or work or go to school within that half-mile or so from a station are the most likely to use it regularly. Of course, the proposed service connects places that are already major activity centers, which contributes to the positive ridership forecast.  But there are also plenty of surface parking lots, vacant industrial buildings, and similar potential near many of the suggested stations, providing good opportunities for upcycling to active uses.

Obviously, it will be a decade or more before the Coast-to-Coast service can be up and running—but spending that time to look at the land use and connecting transportation networks around the stations will be critical to cities and their residents getting the most of this opportunity.

Last week saw Lansing take up bills for a “Historic District Modernization Act”, as well as CityLab weigh in on historic districts’ role in driving up housing prices and limiting affordability. In this context, we can revisit the role of local historic districts in placemaking.  (Spoiler: they’re an important tool!)

Since about 1970, when the Federal and state historic preservation statutes were enacted, 78 cities around Michigan have created districts to support their historic neighborhoods. These efforts provided property owners in those areas a stable and predictable context for investment, often allowing blighted or long-neglected areas to become, over time, some of our communities’ most sought-after neighborhoods. The combination of expertise and oversight provided by Historic District Commissions and staff, as well as Federal tax credits (and state credits, until recently), laid the foundations for these efforts.

Grand Rapids' Cherry Hill area demonstrates how historic districts support the ongoing work of neighborhood reinvestment.

Grand Rapids’ Cherry Hill area demonstrates how historic districts support the ongoing work of neighborhood reinvestment. (Photo courtesy East Hills Council of Neighbors)

I’ve previously written on Grand Rapids’ Heritage Hill and East Hills neighborhoods, which offer great examples of how historic districts support placemaking.  In 1992, residents of the Cherry Hill area of the east hills began the process of forming a district as part of their fight against blight, crime, and absentee property owners. A walk through the neighborhood today, just over two decades later, shows how the district has contributed to creating a great neighborhood that anchors the Wealthy Street and Cherry Street commercial districts. While work definitely remains to be done, many of the homes have been brought back from the brink of destruction by fire or neglect, creating the physical fabric that supports close relationships between neighbors.

The significance is not just aesthetic, but economic. During the real estate roller coaster of the last 10 years, Zillow reports this neighborhood’s average home value has increased by 25%, while the average home value in Grand Rapids as a whole remains 7% below 2006 levels. In the Fairmount Square portion of the East Hills—where another historic district was established in 1999, following Cherry Hill’s example—the economics were strong enough to support the construction of 35 condo townhomes during the middle of the recession, in coordination with the rehabilitation of the adjacent DA Blodgett Home for Children. The success of these neighborhoods for both residents and businesses show how historic districts support economic development efforts—in buildings both new and old.

New townhomes in Grand Rapids' Fairmount Square historic district show how new and historic construction can fit side by side.

New townhomes in Grand Rapids’ Fairmount Square historic district show how new and historic construction can fit side by side.

The Grand Rapids examples also show the weakness in CityLab’s critique.  While that piece targets local historic districts as tools to exclude lower-income residents—and uses an image from the Heritage Hill district to illustrate “pretty house” preservation—that neighborhood hosts Grand Rapids’ densest and most diverse set of housing options.  The home pictured sits on a block whose housing ranges from beautiful historic mansions to modest homes on postage stamp lots, alongside a mix of duplexes, townhomes, carriage barn apartments, and 8 story apartment buildings: hardly the exclusive enclave of single-family homes the author describes.

In this case, as in many of our cities, historic districts include and protect housing in a broad range of styles and price points. And, as the Fairmount Square development shows, can incorporate new development as well. While local districts can be used to reinforce exclusive zoning, they don’t necessarily do so, nor are they as much of a factor as single-family zoning standards, minimum lot sizes, or parking requirements. And to the CityLab concern about historic districts boosting property values, well, that was the hope of the Cherry Hill residents trying to build a neighborhood—bringing property values from the rock bottom of abandonment back up to something near the city and statewide averages.

Older neighborhoods often mix retail storefronts into residential areas, offering the walkable amenities residents want.

Older neighborhoods often mix retail storefronts into residential areas, offering the walkable amenities residents want.

In many cases, our historic districts are pre-war neighborhoods that look a lot like the types of areas that we’ve talked about in our strategic placemaking efforts: small commercial areas with apartments (or the possibility of them) above business uses that front on the sidewalk, and neighborhoods of homes, apartment houses, and small apartment buildings adjacent.  Many of the buzzwords we use in our placemaking work—“compact, walkable mixed-use districts with high connectivity and missing middle housing options” (huh?)—are just a way of saying, “let’s build great new neighborhoods that look and function like these great old neighborhoods.”

In older communities across Michigan, taking care of the good places we already have is the easiest starting point for placemaking—and historic districts are an important foundation for that work.

Visiting family in Grand Rapids’ Heritage Hill neighborhood over the holidays is always a great opportunity to dive into another city’s urban form.  (Or at least that’s the excuse I give to get out of the house and away from family for a while!)  The

Great neighborhoods dedicate only the bare minimum amount of space to parking.

Great neighborhoods dedicate only the bare minimum amount of space to parking.

area, just east of downtown and south of the Medical Mile, is one of Michigan’s great urban neighborhoods, and it achieves that status despite (or because of) breaking several “everybody knows” rules of neighborhood planning.

Most communities’ planning & zoning documents assume an ideal neighborhood to be one that is dominated by owner-occupied single-family homes, with adequate yards for those families’ children to play in and driveways and garages for their cars to park in–any other neighborhood pattern is treated as somewhat less desirable, whether for reasons of “stability”, property values, maintenance standards, nuisance, or similar.  Many people certainly do want to live in that type of neighborhood, but because our zoning has enforced this as the “good” neighborhood pattern for 70 years now, most of our cities have an oversupply of it, while lacking options for residents who want something else.

The "terrace" pattern in Heritage Hill and Midtown fits half a dozen additional houses into the center of a block, or into places where irregular terrain or other factors break the street grid.

The “terrace” pattern in Heritage Hill and Midtown fits half a dozen additional houses into the center of a block, or into places where irregular terrain or other factors break the street grid.

Heritage Hill, and the adjacent East Hills and Midtown neighborhoods, showcase a different pattern: while most of the properties in this area look like “a house,” these neighborhoods have some of the highest residential densities in the city, and both homeowners and single-family homes are a minority.

This contrast comes from a few factors:

  • Homes are placed on relatively small lots–many less than 1/10 acre.
  • Most have very small “yard” areas, with front porches often within a few feet of the sidewalk, and the building occupying most of its lot.
  • While there are larger apartment buildings scattered through the neighborhood, the majority of dwelling units are in duplexes or  3- or 4-plexes. Some of these are visibly constructed as “flats”, but most are houses.
  • The historic streets are narrow, and off-street parking is limited, dedicating less of the neighborhood’s total acreage to asphalt.

Far from being less desirable as a result, data from GVSU’s Community Research Institute show these neighborhoods having above average shares of young, educated households and above average incomes; property values are strong and rising, and active renovation projects are visible on every block–just the type of talent attraction and local investment outcomes we hope to see from successful strategic placemaking efforts.

Martha's Vineyard, "a corner store with a global wine selection", anchors a neighborhood convenience cluster--pizza, bakery, and coffee--in Midtown.

Martha’s Vineyard, “a corner store with a global wine selection”, anchors a neighborhood convenience cluster–pizza, bakery, and coffee–in Midtown.

The neighborhoods also feature small business districts tucked within them, some only a few buildings large and located on “small residential streets” that wouldn’t meet most standards for commercial development. These are both cause and effect of the neighborhoods’ success: having the ability to grab a quick coffee or a few grocery items for dinner within a short walk of home is a plus for prospective residents–and the high density of those residents provides the critical mass of customers that supports those businesses.

Obviously, the historic housing stock of these neighborhoods is hard to replicate (the photos here are far from the most “grand” examples in the area) though a lot of the ingredients for success can be adopted by other neighborhoods, especially where there is a historic street grid and housing to start with:

Neighborhood organizations use plaque programs both to recognize individual property owners' contributions and build a shared sense of place identity.

Neighborhood organizations use plaque programs both to recognize individual property owners’ contributions and to build a shared sense of place identity.

  • The small lot, duplex to 4-plex pattern that contributes most of the residential density here can be used to add new choices to many neighborhoods, filling the “missing middle” between single-family homes and larger apartment complexes. A form-based code can help ensure these options, either as conversions or new construction, fit in with the existing building stock.
  • Look beyond zoning when considering the appropriate way to manage a neighborhood–here, the historic district designations and controls have clearly been the most significant regulatory contributor to success, rather than zoning.
  • Adopt a Complete Streets approach that allows residents to walk, bike, or take transit to many destinations reduces the need to plan around parking–in these Grand Rapids neighborhoods, about 2/3 of households have only 1 car, or none whatsoever.

Even more than these specific actions, having an engaged neighborhood is critical–the “place governance” here arose in the late 1960s, when residents organized to prevent the widespread demolition of their neighborhood for redevelopment, as well as to reach out and recruit new residents in spite of mortgage redlining, and the place the neighborhood is today reflects the interests and tactics of residents then.  Fortunately, not all organizing for place needs to arise from crisis.

Here comes BRT!  Silver Line's stations include "blue light" emergency phone kiosks, fare machines, and digital signs showing when the next vehicle arrives.

Here comes BRT! Silver Line’s stations include “blue light” emergency phone kiosks, fare machines, and digital signs showing when the next vehicle arrives.

The Rapid cut the ribbon on their Silver Line, Michigan’s first BRT system, a few weeks ago, connecting Grand Rapids, Wyoming, and Kentwood along 9.6 miles of Division Avenue.  BRT, or bus rapid transit, tries to provide the benefits of a light rail system, like travel speed, reliability, and ease of use, but with tires and pavement instead of the upfront costs of laying rail; the metro Detroit RTA, Lansing’s CATA system, and the Ann Arbor Area Transit Authority (AAATA) are all exploring BRT for their high-demand routes. Similar to a rail system, these benefits of BRT should support higher ridership, leading to residents and businesses wanting to be near the stations and driving real estate development in these areas.

Last week, I had the opportunity to catch a ride on the Silver Line and get an initial idea of how well it delivers on the promise. Since I had to be downtown both before and after my research ride, I just rode out from the central station for a while before getting off and crossing the street to come back, but the impressions of riders who were actually using the BRT to go somewhere were overwhelmingly positive.

Typical bus routes are slower than car travel, because they not only experience the same traffic and red lights, but also have to stop every few blocks for passengers.  The Silver Line attempts to cut down all of these delays:

My impromptu focus group had only good things to say about the Silver Line.

My impromptu focus group had only good things to say about the Silver Line.

  • Dedicated lanes marked “BRT ONLY” for about 2/3 of the route mean that the BRT isn’t competing with traffic—in some cases we zipped by lines of cars, while the parts of the route we shared with traffic were notably slower
  • Signal priority means that the traffic signals try to give the BRT a green whenever possible, shortening the time it spends stopped for red lights.
  • The stations are bigger structures, and average about a half mile apart (closer together downtown), instead of bus stop signs every 3-4 blocks, reducing the number of stops.
  • Pre-boarding fare payment has riders buying a ticket before they get on the vehicle, so nobody’s fumbling for change at the door and holding up the bus.

The riders I talked to said it was working, even though many cars hadn’t yet learned they were supposed to stay out of the BRT lanes, and even though the fare machines at the stations had some learning curve: the BRT ran faster, came more frequently, and was altogether a more pleasant experience than riding the “regular” bus.  As a result, the BRT had most seats full on both my ride out and back, at 3:30 on a Wednesday afternoon. Obviously, Month 1 is very early for trying to measure either ridership or economic development impacts, but I also talked to a developer looking at a few sites along the route for mixed-use, residential + retail projects.

BRT-only lanes help keep the Silver Line from getting stuck in traffic, providing a faster and smoother ride.

BRT-only lanes help keep the Silver Line from getting stuck in traffic, providing a faster and smoother ride.

Grand Rapids has set the bar for the other Michigan regions considering BRT, and
there is also room to improve:

  • For now at least, the Silver Line departs every 10 minutes during peak hours, but only every 20 minutes mid-day, which falls short of “so often you don’t need a schedule”—the best case for calling a transit line truly “convenient” (and a goal the BRT can grow towards).
  • The vehicles have somewhat larger front and rear doors for faster boarding, but otherwise seem nearly the same as typical buses. By comparison, Cleveland’s HealthLine BRT has extra-long buses with no stairs to reach the rear seats, and lets riders bring bicycles on board (avoiding delays from loading them on the front racks).
  • The areas where the BRT shares a lane with cars are noticeably slower than the dedicated lanes, limiting the speed benefit.

Coincidentally, the Detroit RTA board approved the “locally preferred alternative” (LPA) for a Woodward BRT system while I was riding the Silver Line. The LPA provides the broad strokes of a transit system, allowing the RTA to dive into the details of engineering and service design. With calls for Woodward to be the first “Gold Standard” BRT system in the United States, the RTA can learn from Grand Rapids’ very good system as they work towards a final design.