Detroit Roosevelt MMP

Detroit is midstride in its great comeback, emerging like a phoenix in full burn. In a city which has suffered so much loss, not only are community leaders and private investors acting to salvage what remains, but they are making the city whole again by knitting together gaps with new infill. Big impacts have been directed to the downtown core, yet there’s still much to be done at the neighborhood level.

One of the instruments of Detroit’s success was established during the economic recovery, with an unorthodox approach to building preservation and reuse. In 2013, City of Detroit and the Detroit Landbank Authority (DLBA) received an allocation from the Hardest Hit Fund. Working with an army of volunteers from the Michigan Historic Preservation Network and Preservation Detroit, along with homegrown tech experts from Data Driven Detroit (D3) and Loveland Technologies, they created the Detroit Blight Task Force. Out of this creative partnership, Blexting—short for blight texting—was born.

Blexting created a survey of the condition of nearly every property in the city of Detroit. The results were informed recommendations for the demolition of thousands of properties by DLBA. Instead of blindly pushing through blight elimination dollars, Detroit’s leaders used a more sophisticated approach supported by photos and existing conditions data directly uploaded to the survey. By documenting and evaluating a substantial portion of the city’s building stock, the taskforce effectively put assets into a building savings account for when the market ripened for rebirth.

Less than a decade later, Detroit is now activating those saved assets. Neighborhood-level community plans and new developments contain a mixture of building rehab, adaptive reuse, and new infill construction. Sections of the city which had not seen new work in decades are now receiving reinvestment. And it’s far from done.
Detroit is in many ways unique. Yet in other ways, such as scarcity of resources, lost taxable value, and declined population, it mirrors the disinvestment felt by many Michigan towns. Here are lessons learned for Michigan’s aging building stock.

Strategize & Combine Tactics

The decisions cities make today will shape the reality of their future. Cities need to articulate a consensus vision of who they are and who they want to be. Immediate tactics are site inventory, zoning reform, and the choice of target sites for catalytic reinvestment. Doubling down on existing buildings – both historic gems and simply older sites – and development of vacant lots in core city centers can also help cities respond to increasing interest in lessening environmental impact and improving infrastructure resiliency.

Michigan residents are choosing increasingly to live, work, and be in places of authentic texture. And because energy use is an increasingly important issue, they often want it connected to transit. The Q Line on Woodward is one way that Detroit is concentrating effort along an existing corridor, building in walkable transit-oriented development amid the streetcar suburbs of the last century.

Explicitly Advocate for Diversity

Only 8 percent of National Register sites and 3 percent of our National Historic Landmarks represent people of color, women, or members of the LGBTQ community. As stated by National Main Street CEO Patrice Frey in a recent City Lab article, “The preservation movement is also struggling to tell the full American story.”

Cities must build an authentic local vision by asking their residents to help with asset inventory. Get on the ground and engage in conversations with those who live there. Record what defines the place to avoid sacrificing cultural identity.

Detroit is owning the gaps in its recorded history and they’re doing something about it. Through neighborhood planning efforts, the city is backfilling a broad range of under-told histories which are more reflective of all residents. They’re doing this through a pilot event that brings together several departments to engage with local preservation stakeholders. Tiffany Rakotz, a Preservation Specialist at the City of Detroit, says this dialogue will “focus on thematic topics that impact local preservation efforts during this period of recovery and growth.”

Broaden the Concept of “Preservation” to Plan for Attainable Housing

According to recent discussions at the Urban Land Institute’s spring meeting in Detroit, households are now choosing smaller homes in favor of proximity to parks, walkability to shops, and employment. The magical formula here also includes the key calculation of what people can actually afford.

In considering how to rehab Michigan’s aging housing stock and accommodate gaps with new construction infills, communities must choose a diversity of options instead of one single family housing solution. Prior to standardized zoning, historic neighborhoods had small scale commercial next to single-family homes mixed with multi-unit splits, carriage houses turned into apartments, row houses, and duplexes intentionally built next to single units.

By easing zoning restrictions and allowing these natural adaptations to take place by-right in the code, we can not only legalize what has happened in neighborhoods for decades, we can also encourage reinvestment in those same neighborhoods in new and creative ways.

In choosing to allow for a mixture of building types for rebuilding neighborhoods, cities can also communicate that attainable quality for many income bands does not equal luxury housing. Cities also need to develop alternative financing options so people who want to fix up their aging building stock – either in incremental multi-unit development or single-family rehab – can access the funds to accomplish the work.

Tempering community engagement with realistic expectations is key. In Detroit, members of the community are being actively engaged in “preserving … local history, and in creating a vision for the future,” says Rakotz. “I think it is important for the citizens of Detroit to recognize what resources the City is able to provide and for us as public servants to understand what those citizens want.”

pitch contestOur friends at Consumers Energy asked the Michigan Municipal League to share with our members news about the company’s “Put Your Town on the Map” Pitch competition.

Here are the details announced by Consumers Energy last week:

The “Put Your Town on the Map” competition will provide a total of $15,000 to three initiatives that are designed to build a stronger sense of community. Up to 10 finalist communities will compete for the funding at the 2019 Small Town and Rural Development Conference on April 17 in Thompsonville, Mich. The pitch competition is for communities up to 10,000 in population and has a top prize of $7,500 with additional awards at $5,000 and $2,500.

The contest aims to reward a variety of innovative ideas, such as those that attract visitors to downtowns; focus on issues, such as housing, education or employment; create community pride; and more. Community leaders can learn more and apply for the competition at

View the press release:

kaboom graphic1Does your southeast Michigan community have an idea for a creative public space that encourages active play of people of all ages? Do you think you could come up with such an idea? If you can yes to either of those questions, then the Play Everywhere Challenge could be for your community.

Supported by the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation and presented by KaBOOM!, the Play Everywhere Challenge is a community-focused design competition to develop new ideas for bringing play to unexpected but everyday spaces, making play easy and available for kids and families. As part of the Challenge, grantees will be selected in Southeast Michigan and Western New York to receive a combined total of $1 million in prize funds. The application period opened Monday, Jan. 14. Go here for details and here for the official challenge rules.

kaboom graphic2You may have read or heard about a recent grant the Michigan Municipal League Foundation received from Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation at the end of last year to help out in Hamtramck (read more about that here). This Play Everywhere Challenge is another amazing project being supported by the Wilson Foundation. The Michigan Municipal League is helping spread the word to our League members.

This is the second year of the challenge. Previous challenge winners were in the League member communities of Allen Park, Port Huron, and Romulus as well as in other areas in Macomb County, St. Clair County, Washtenaw County, and Wayne County.  View all the past projects here.

Here is the Play Everywhere Challenge timeline:

  • The Play Everywhere Challenge Idea form opened Monday, Jan. 14
  • Early Bird idea form Deadline: February 15
  • Final idea form Deadline: March 22
  • June – winners announced
  • July 15, 2019 – June 30, 2020: implementation

Here are additional details:

kaboom 4The Play Everywhere Challenge, supported by the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation through its Built to Play initiative, will create more opportunities for free, unstructured, unplanned play. Together, we are ensuring all kids, no matter where they come from or where they live, get the active play they need to thrive.


All kids need play to grow up happy, healthy and resilient. But many families struggle to find the time to incorporate play into their daily routines, and adequate, convenient playspaces can be hard to come by. According to a 2017 Aspen Institute report, only 13 percent of youth in Southeast Michigan and 16 percent in Western New York are getting the one hour of daily physical activity, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Kids know that play can happen anywhere: at the grocery store, in a waiting room or on the way to school. The Play Everywhere Challenge asks grantees to engage kids and families in designing unique playspaces that excite curiosity and make kids say “I want to play there!” The Challenge will help families integrate play into everyday life and reach the kids who have limitless potential but are often overlooked with few options for active play.


  • Share your great idea for getting kids and families playing everywhere by submitting an Idea Form at
  • Check-out past Play Everywhere projects by visiting org/builttoplay.


If a group of community-minded young people comes knocking on city hall’s door, you might want to pay close attention. When Jackson Young Professionals (JxnYP) did the knocking to float the idea for a new community event, the answer was a resounding yes. Recently, I got to see the result when I strolled the streets of downtown Jackson. Dubbed Bright Walls, the exciting mural festival went on for days, and created amazing public art that will last for years.

Thirteen artists from across the country and as far away as Mexico, Brazil, and The Netherlands spent six days transforming blank building walls into spectacular works of art. Big crowds of spectators watched in admiration as outlined designs gradually grew into colorful, unique creations. To make Bright Walls truly a community event, JxnYP spiced things up with food, live music, and daily themes. I was there for Rock The Block day, which featured local radio station K105.3 on site, a local artist “mini-mural” contest, and a live concert featuring Your Generation in Concertâ„¢. When dark clouds threatened to drench festival-goers assembling for the outdoor concert, JxnYP quickly pivoted and found an indoor location – the nearby Michigan Theatre.The new location didn’t seem to dampen spirits at all as the auditorium quickly filled up with an enthusiastic crowd.


Bright Walls team and artists.  Photo courtesy of Maury Page Photography.

The Festival Started with LOVE

If it wasn’t for Clay McAndrews and Leslie Youndahl’s penchant for traveling and taking pictures of murals, the Bright Walls festival might never have come to light. Clay and Leslie – both members of Jackson Young Professionals – had been dating for a while and Clay decided it was time to pop the question. In true mural lover fashion, he searched for a mural festival and found one that had just concluded in Boston. But the mural that would serve as the backdrop for his proposal had to be extra special. When he spotted one that said LOVE in giant letters, he knew that was the ideal site. Leslie said yes, and the seeds for Jackson’s mural festival were planted.

“I got to thinking that we’ve made so many great memories photographing murals, it would be great to create a mural festival so other people can create their own memories,” said Clay, a creative consultant at Consumers Energy.

Bright Walls-abstract-300x200Clay pitched the idea for a mural festival to JxnYP and they loved it! Since promoting Jackson as a great place to live, work, and play is at the heart of the group’s mission, the event was a perfect fit. Clay became a co-director of Bright Walls along with Jaqueline Austin, owner and events director of Think Jackson, a placemaking company. The two of them assembled a team of 12 Jackson Young Professionals with diverse skill sets. Clay is a graphic designer, Jacqueline brought events and urban planning skills, one team member works for the Downtown Development Authority, a few work for nonprofits, and there was even a banker to help with finance.

“We had a well-rounded team that worked really well together,” said Jacqueline. “They went from not knowing each other very well in the beginning to becoming great friends and a team.”

Bright Walls-Bloom-2-200x300It Continued with a Convincing Plan

To ensure the event’s success, JxnYP spent a month putting together a very detailed plan, which included reading the city’s master plan to make sure they were lining up with the city’s goals. They also put together a presentation to lay out their plans for the festival and convince the city and other sponsors to support their endeavor.

“We knew going in that we needed to have the city as a partner,” said Jacqueline. “The city was so excited they jumped on board day one. We couldn’t have asked for more enthusiasm. They supported us in any way they could, from supplying street barricades, to helping us arrange for tents, to advice.”

The response was very positive from the business community, as well. Soon, JxnYP had raised over $130,000 from sponsors ranging from Consumers Energy and Flagstar Bank to Grand River Brewery and JTV. Some are already hoping for a repeat performance.

“I think the festival surprised the community. We had no idea what kind of draw this would be and it surpassed all expectations in every way,” said Bart Hawley, owner of JTV, a huge supporter of the Jackson community. “The Jackson Young Professionals planned, organized, and operated this event perfectly.  We can’t wait to do this again!”

Bright Walls-big bird-300x200Artists Brought the Creative Fire

To help assemble just the right team of mural artists, Clay called on Jeremiah Britton, his former classmate at Central Michigan University. Jeremiah, originally from Jackson, is now a well known artist in New York and twice has painted in the Murals in the Market festival at Detroit’s Eastern Market. With his contacts and knowledge of the community, he chose artists that he knew Jackson residents would appreciate. Britton booked seven of the artists, and Clay booked five.

Each artist brought a unique style to their work. Using paint buckets and spray cans, they developed creations covering the gamut from nature and abstract art to typography and mystical creatures. Judging from the responses they’ve received, Clay and Jeremiah’s artist choices were very much in tune with the community.

“The impact is phenomenal. I’ve heard nothing but fantastic reviews from the community and business owners,” said Clay. “It’s great for Jackson, and leaves the community with free art.”

“It’s getting people downtown and seeing Jackson in a new light,” added Jacqueline. “The fact that a group our size was able to pull off this huge event showed there are people who really care about the community.”

Want to know the rest of Clay and Leslie’s love story? They recently got married and had wedding photos taken … where else? … in front of one of the Bright Walls murals!

For more information and photos, visit Bright Walls Jackson.

To see artist interviews and videos of the event, visit JTV.