A year ago, the city of Ypsilanti released a developer request for qualifications for a city-owned parcel–this was the first of four properties around the state that the League’s Civic Innovation Labs team supported as part of a MSHDA-funded effort to advance placemaking developments.

A year later, all four properties are under contract and in various stages of the due diligence process. While it’s too early yet for any of them to have broken ground, they generally show the effectiveness of proactively setting priorities for a site and marketing those to developers.

They also reinforce that pre-development visioning can only go so far: the developer proposals clearly reflect what the city asked for, but with variations.

In Muskegon, the developer’s concept plans clearly reflect the semi-attached townhome scheme we laid out, albeit in a layout that uses more of the site. Their concept allows slightly larger homes (and more variety in size), but requires a little more work to address historical easements and deed restrictions.

The working site plan does incorporate some of our recommendations for better flow between the site and the adjacent marina (removing a fence, for example), while also adding amenities for marina users. Overall, we’re excited to see this moving forward–along with plenty of other activity along Muskegon’s lakefront.

Our designer's concept for the site at 1000 W. Western, and the developer's take on the site.

Our designer’s concept for the site at 1000 W. Western, and the developer’s take on the site.

In Kalamazoo, we and the city set a high bar for a developer, asking for reuse of a long-vacant and obsolete public safety building and also the addition of new residential construction atop it.

One developer took the challenge, though their proposal noted that remediation of the existing building, structural challenges of adding stories, and the position of the building on the site combined to make the version we laid out infeasible.  Their counterproposal would demolish the existing building, but ensure the major features of it were recreated in the new structure.

The developer's concept would include a rebuilt version of the fire station facade for sidewalk-facing retail, with a combination of office and affordable apartments above.

The developer’s concept would include a rebuilt version of the fire station facade for sidewalk-facing retail, with a combination of office and affordable apartments above.

The last of our RFQ efforts, a Genesee County Land Bank-owned property in North Flint, went under contract earlier this month, with a team that combines a national developer’s experience and financial capacity with a neighborhood community development group’s on-the-ground knowledge–this partnership should boost the project’s chances of success.

We’ll be watching these projects as they move forward–and as we dive in to several others: MEDC’s Redevelopment Ready Communities program has also contracted us to provide pre-development assistance to all of their certified communities.

For those who haven’t cross the finish line of RRC certification, we’ve also created materials that anyone can use to DIY their own developer RFQ.

Muskegon has been named this year’s Strongest Town, beating Kent, Ohio, in the final round of voting, and joining the 2017 champion, Traverse City, at the top of this international contest.  (Holland made the final four in the inaugural contest in 2016.)

And well they should be!

And well they should be!

We (of course) knew Muskegon was a strong contender: the city has been both creative and methodical in its work to rebuild downtown after the demolition of the Muskegon Mall in the early 2000s, to reorient and take full advantage of the Lake Muskegon shoreline, and to fill in gaps in its neighborhoods.

Just a few highlights of their recent work:

  • The city adjusted their zoning ordinance to re-open possibilities for small lots in neighborhoods where the historic building pattern featured, well, small lots. In undoing the inappropriately large lot requirements that had prevented new homes, additions, or other investments in these neighborhoods, the city explicitly recognized that one size does not fit all, “and that development standards should reflect each specific block type.”
  • Given a one-time payment from a paper mill that was closing its doors in 2009, the city could have thrown that money into its general fund or used it to do a one-time project—instead, recognizing the difficulty developers were having in getting financing, Muskegon dedicated the money as a revolving construction loan fund that could be reused year after year.
Saved from the malling of downtown Muskegon in the 1970s, this block now anchors downtown with new businesses making creative use of historic buildings.

Saved from the malling of downtown Muskegon in the 1970s, this block now anchors downtown with new businesses making creative use of historic buildings.

  • Muskegon was quick to take advantage of MEDC’s RedevelopmentReady Communities program for support in touching up their master plan, zoning ordinance, and development processes, and to use the League’s work in developer matchmaking to secure a partner for turning a vacant riverfront parking lot into new homes.
  • The “Love Muskegon” promotional campaign highlighted the community’s pride of place, mobilizing residents to show off their community, with the local community foundation offering $500 micro-grants to support neighborhood improvement projects. This organic effort complemented the more traditional county-wide marketing effort, “Watch Us Go”, itself a great example of regional collaboration.

Of course, the belle of the ball in terms of creative incremental development was likely the Western Market pop-up shops that the city created to fill a gap in downtown with affordable seasonal retail space. (It couldn’t have hurt the city’s standing that Strong Towns themselves featured this project just a few weeks before the bracket began!)

At Western Market, the city created 12 retail mini-shops at a cost of $30,000. The market offered small businesses a low-risk way to test out their storefront possibilities while filling a gap in the downtown streetscape.

At Western Market, the city created 12 retail mini-shops at a cost of $30,000. The market offered small businesses a low-risk way to test out their storefront possibilities while filling a gap in the downtown streetscape.

As the announcement of Muskegon’s champion status declared, “This Midwestern state is shaping up to be quite a leader in building strong towns!” We look forward to seeing who joins Traverse City and Muskegon in winning the Strong Towns hat trick next year.