Down the street from the League’s Ann Arbor offices is this row of oak trees, 20 years old or so. They line the vacant lot, about a five-acre grassy space, at the edge of an office park.

I do not like these trees.

The offending trees.

The offending trees.

It’s nothing personal—they are very nice trees, and have done nothing wrong—but they bother me every time I walk past them because they were planted in the wrong place.

Most likely, when the first phases of the office park were developed, the city’s zoning ordinance required that these trees be planted around the edge of the site as a “green buffer” for the development, a common standard based on the theory that development is ugly and passerby need to be protected from it by a moat of plants. As in this case, these well-intended requirements can be counter-productive: by looking narrowly at the site, the development standards misuse good trees as mere damage control, when they could have been the seeds of a great place.

Those trees could be doing so much better than to dress up the edges of these parking lots.

Our trees could be used for so much better than merely dressing up the edges of these parking lots.

Imagine if they had been planted as street trees, between the sidewalk and the curb, instead of ten feet behind the curb.  At this point, they’d be shading a good portion of the pavement, and in another few decades might reach over the centerline—perhaps meeting trees planted on the other side of the street. This wide-open suburban byway, where drivers regularly drive 10 over the speed limit, would feel much more like a city street, with all of the safety, cooling, stormwater, and health benefits that properly placed street trees provide.

Next there’s the impact the trees have on the future development of that parcel. This site is a short bus ride from downtown Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan’s campus and medical center, plus has two supermarkets, a drugstore, coffee shop, and several restaurants clustered around the nearby intersection at Plymouth Road. If the trees were in their proper location as street trees, we could easily imagine a neighborhood of townhomes at this location, opening the fierce Ann Arbor housing market to 100 or so more households. With front stoops near the sidewalk, parking limited and accessed from alleys in the rear, such a neighborhood would continue transforming the area.

But where the trees are now, 10 feet behind the sidewalk, they push any future development of the site back away from the street, encouraging a continuation of the car-centric suburban pattern.  We only have to look at the site next door to see what kind of development these trees support: stormwater basin, parking lot, standalone office building, more parking lot.

Streets reflect the use of the land around them. The road sees traffic levels of 3,900 vehicles / day, in SEMCOG’s most recent counts. As a general rule of thumb, a street can carry about 10,000 vehicles a day with a single lane in each direction. The three-lane layout of this road is wildly overbuilt, especially considering how few places there are to make a left turn: it only makes sense because there’s nothing better to do with the width.

Low traffic volume and few intersections means the left turn lane isn't even considered worth plowing--which creates a hazard for pedestrians at crosswalks.

Low traffic volume and few intersections means the left turn lane isn’t even considered worth plowing–which creates a hazard for pedestrians at crosswalks.

In our scenario of street trees and townhomes, though, Green Road cries out to be a better street—to put that space to better use. Let’s eliminate that completely unnecessary left turn lane, then put a row of on-street parking along the front of our townhomes on the east side of the street. Bike lanes along parking lanes are dangerous, so let’s use the remaining width for a two-way protected cycle track on the west side of the street, creating a safer connection between the neighborhoods to the south, the commercial amenities at Plymouth Road to the north, and the campus access points to the west.

This street in Muskegon shows how a street with the same width of pavement can have an entirely different feel when that width is allocated differently and the adjacent land use is oriented at people over cars.

This street in Muskegon shows how a street with the same width of pavement can have an entirely different feel when that width is allocated differently and the adjacent land use is oriented at people over cars.

We could continue rippling outwards to see how these changes support even more momentum towards creating great human habitat, rather than moving cars at unnecessary speeds, but you get the point: the trees are in the wrong place.

(Spoiler alert: later this year we’ll be rolling out the second Michigan-specific “Enabling Better Places” guide as part of the Project for Code Reform. This guide will focus on incremental tactics for updating local zoning codes to enable, not necessarily guarantee, development that supports great places in suburban corridors.  As a hater of trees-in-wrong-places, I’m pleased to note the draft has “eliminate buffer requirements” on page 29.)

Thanks to the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, this year’s Convention attendees had the chance to be wowed by the transformation of Detroit’s waterfront during two mobile workshops and a general session with Conservancy CEO Mark Wallace. While our largest city’s efforts are of course larger than what most of our communities will undertake, many of the lessons from their experience can translate to smaller places.

Convention attendees gathered at the start of an urban bike and walk trail

The Dequindre Cut connects from the Detroit Riverwalk two miles north to Eastern Market along a former rail right-of-way.

Plan long-term, work incrementally

Convention attendees gathered around a landscape model

The Conservancy’s Mark Pasco discusses the plans for West Riverfront Park

Conservancy staff noted that they do not own the property that the Riverwalk or Dequindre Cut sit on, instead relying on a network of 99-year easements across a patchwork of privately and publicly-owned properties. In fact, after 16 years of work, this effort is still ongoing, and the Conservancy doesn’t yet have control over all the land needed for the ultimate vision.

This experience will be common to riverfront, lakefront, or trail projects in many communities—and that’s okay. Parts of Detroit’s Riverwalk have been completed and in use for a decade, offering great public spaces even while other pieces are still being put together. Treat these projects as a marathon that may take multiple generations of elected or staff leadership to complete: start with the parts that are available, build momentum, and expand from success.

Don’t give away public access

One missing link in the Riverwalk has been the segment in front of the Riverfront Towers condominiums. Built in the early 1980s on parcels that went to the water’s edge, the condo association was unwilling to allow use of their frontage for the Riverwalk; the conservancy was ultimately able to negotiate a boardwalk in the river to go around the towers’ property. A Riverwalk or similar linear park effort can easily be stymied by a holdout property owner like this—communities should do what they can to avoid having to face these situations.

Where public land along a riverfront or other such feature is sold for development, the community should maintain a public frontage in essentially all cases: where selling rights all the way to the water may boost the value to that single developer and therefore the one-time benefit of the sale price, maintaining it in the public trust provides broader public value in perpetuity. Similarly, any negotiation of development incentives for waterfront property should consider access rights, even if no trail or Riverwalk plans currently exist. If a property is sold or developed without such rights, another chance at that discussion may not arise for several decades.

Design or adapt the space to the people who use it

Children playing in the GM Plaza fountain

This was not the intended use of this space, but the designers followed the users, and it worked.

Wallace noted that the fountain in GM Plaza, in front of the Ren Cen, was originally envisioned as a sculptural element, rather than an interactive feature, but was quickly adopted by kids as a play area. (A development that could have been predicted by anyone who knows small children!) Rather than trying to obstruct access to the water feature, the Conservancy realized this unintended use was a bonus—but that water features which kids play in need more care taken for water quality, requiring an upgrade to the water supply for the fountain.

A learning process over times of how people want to use the space can be a good thing, and can be anticipated and planned for, rather than treated as a mistake. Temporary pop-ups, or a limited initial construction phase can allow some time to see what people like, or what’s not going to work as planned.

Make programming easy

Placemaking is about people, and nothing attracts people like other people. Making it easy for events large and small to use a space gets residents and visitors accustomed to visiting and adding that place to their routine. This means a place like the Riverwalk needs active management and a clear, easy process for event approval. This doesn’t mean a mandate to say “yes” to everything, because of the need to ensure access to all, provide for public safety, event cleanup, etc., but the requirements placed on an event should be clear and easy to meet, with fast turnaround from place managers.

Natural areas and real estate development aren’t incompatible

Conflicts often arise during discussions of vacant land, especially along water, around perceived zero-sum trade-offs. Dedicating new parkland can be seen as a missed opportunity for economic development or new housing, while construction along natural corridors draws opposition as antithetical to nature. Detroit’s Riverfront shows these purposes can thrive in coordination, with a variety of amphibians, reptiles, and birds in restored natural areas alongside new homes for humans.

Tour group photographing a great blue heron perched on a light fixture in front of new residential development

That’s an actual heron on the lamppost, not some concocted sculptural element.

In reaching this balance, the design of both aspects is important. Natural spaces that support wildlife (and stormwater management) doesn’t mean either a grassy lawn or just leaving be an overgrown farm field, but requires attention to scale, grading, plant selection, and creation of contiguous corridors. Not to mention education–as Wallace and other Conservancy staff noted, having high-functioning natural ecosystems can involve fielding complaints from park users who think the space is overgrown with “weeds”.

New construction can have the broadest benefit if it prioritizes multi-family apartments or condos, targeted to a mix of income levels, over stand-alone house construction. Additionally, where the footprint of development is large enough to include new streets and blocks, avoid placing long continuous block faces towards the water or natural area—a block pattern that has frequent streets or alleys perpendicular to the natural area will allow the greatest access for residents further into the neighborhood.

Resources

While Detroit’s Riverfront has benefited from substantial private donations, some of the funding sources used are available to other communities statewide:

All of these grant programs have an April 1st annual application deadline, and require that the local government applicant have an adopted 5-year Recreation Master Plan on file with DNR. Communities interested in applying should discuss their projects with MDNR grants staff well in advance of the deadline.

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.”

League staff have recently helped educate legislators on the need to reinstate Michigan’s historic tax credit, which could have broad applications for multi-unit rental housing in historic buildings, upper story residential in downtown cores, adaptive reuse of underutilized buildings, and rehab of existing single-family housing. Accessible to both commercial rentals and owner-occupied residential, it would be one more excellent tool in the toolbox, and not only encourage reinvestment in our existing downtowns and already-built-out neighborhoods, it would reduce the ecological impact of building demolition in Michigan landfills.

Related to this push is the demand for a certain kind of housing – think smaller (2,000 sf or less) missing middle – in the workforce price range of 80 to 120% of Area Median Income (AMI). This demand is far outpacing current supply in cities. Part of the problem a lack of multi-family housing options. Part of it is our aging single-family housing stock, a lot of which desperately needs upgrades and repair. Many people don’t buy those older homes in our city centers because of concern over the hassles of fixing up an old house and a dearth of skilled contractors. (Again, this is where the historic tax credit would be tremendously helpful in increasing the relative affordability of this work.)

We also know that new construction costs the earth to build, so the luxury market is where the majority of new builds are happening. Another way to address the housing mis-match could be a loan fund for homebuyers that would allow them to gain access to the capital needed for immediate improvements upon purchase, because many people barely squeak through closing with enough money to buy curtains, much less a new HVAC system.

But even if we get that Michigan historic tax credit back, and we start addressing capital needs in creative ways, we’re still going to need new construction and a skilled labor force to meet our housing demands.

Quickly. And on a budget.

The Need for Skilled Trades

One proactive step could be to address this need by putting a big investment in building out the trades apprenticeship programs. The Michigan Historic Preservation Network created a rather successful program last year doing trades training, and there are other small scale apprenticeship programs out there, but those programs striving to train a dozen people are no match for a statewide initiative that could be created if the resources of a larger government department or non-profit foundation were tapped.

Another way to incrementally expand the skilled trades professions could be to develop dedicated factories for modular housing, therefore creating reasonably permanent construction jobs in a geographically stable area.

Schematic drawings for new homes being constructed in Grand Rapids by Kent County Landbank

Schematic drawings for new homes being constructed in Grand Rapids by Kent County Land Bank

“But, Modular Housing. REALLY?”

Yeah, really. What we really need is a variety of solutions – not one or two good ideas will solve our housing needs. Particularly in the more rural areas of Michigan, those with flat to limited new housing activity, this kind of model would provide the consistency needed for keeping skilled tradespeople engaged in steady work.

Let’s now address the elephant in the room: perceptions of quality. We’re not talking cheap construction, not cookie-cutter plastic houses that all look like they came from Playskool. This kind of housing is known as “indoor stick built” and it isn’t your grandmother’s double-wide trailer. These housing units are widely customizable, and are constructed in sections of moderate to high grade materials such as metal stud walls, integrated insulation and mechanicals, double or triple paned windows, and fiber cement board siding. The built sections are then trucked from the factory and assembled on a foundation already prepared on site. They are available in a variety of configurations to avoid nauseating repetition. This method of construction is, on average, cleaner and more efficient than standard new construction methods, and it minimizes waste.

What are we talking about for prices? According to our recent research with the Michigan Landbank Fastrack Authority, cost for construction is $110 to $115/sf, which is tracking at about $170,000 for a 1,500 sf home, plus land and site work. Some of these units are already being built in Michigan, with a new project led by the Kent County Landbank in Grand Rapids to do infill construction in existing neighborhoods by constructing homes on vacant parcels. And many more Michigan communities are expressing interest.

This also not the first time that this sort of idea has come into vogue in Michigan. As discussed in Mid-Michigan Modern, a 2016 publication by Susan Bandes of Michigan State University, modular construction was one of the ways communities responded to the market demands for workforce housing in the immediate post-WWII era. There are still a lot of mid-twentieth century neighborhoods across our state that were built with modular construction. They just don’t look like it. Consider also the Sears Kit Homes that got built here in the mitten. These beloved homes were products of a factory system of mass-made, high quality homes delivered from the warehouse. Or, closer to home, the Bay City-based Aladdin Homes chosen from pattern books and “Built in a Day.” Only a few steps away from current-era indoor stick-built homes.

In the end, modular housing indoor stick-built housing may not be THE next big housing solution. But it is one more good quality solution that might work for a segment of the population, while we keep working on other fronts, too.