Sara WilliamsThings in Michigan have changed a lot since Let’s Save Michigan began.  We launched in 2009 as an initiative to support the revitalization and success of our cities and state through educating, engaging, and empowering the public—especially around advocacy.  We increased understanding around placemaking, and the ways in which strengthening our neighborhoods, public spaces, and cities can bolster our quality of life.  We reached out to you to demand transportation alternatives and more complete streets.  We engaged you in conversations around the arts and historic preservation and how they contribute to a city’s health.

Now it’s 2014, and while there’s still plenty more saving to do, it’s time to rethink our approach.  Organizations like Transportation for Michigan (Trans4m) have come along to pick up the smart transportation reform drumbeat.  Placemaking strategies have taken root throughout the state and continue to grow in popularity as economic development tools, and the demand for more livable, connected cities is now widespread.

We’ll be announcing a major transition at the end of this month for Let’s Save Michigan, and we’ll be using some blog space between now and then to recap some of our successes.  Let’s Save Michigan is evolving, and we hope you’ll join our next phase.

Stay tuned.

The University of Michigan’s Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy (CLOSUP), housed in the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, conducts applied academic research, functioning as an information resource for policymakers and practitioners, academics, students, the media, and the public. CLOSUP conducts its Michigan Public Policy Survey (MPPS) of Michigan local government leaders biannually, intended at filling an important information gap in the policymaking process. Providing our citizens with valuable information resources, as CLOSUP is here, is a great way to bridge the gap between our citizens and our policymakers, and heighten the quality of conversations that happen within the process. Efforts like these make community engagement more effective and successful for everyone involved.

In the Spring 2013 MPPS, CLOSUP surveyed local government leaders from 1,350 Michigan jurisdictions. CLOSUP’s new report, “Michigan local governments increasingly pursue placemaking for economic development” presents the opinions of Michigan local government leaders on the community and economic development strategy known as “placemaking” and its use by Michigan jurisdictions across the state.

“Placemaking” is a community and economic development strategy that attempts to capitalize on existing local assets in order to create appealing and unique places where people want to live, work, and play. Different approaches to placemaking might focus on developing a community’s arts or cultural amenities, on architectural design and the use of sustainable materials, on the provision of accessible transit, cycling, or walkable streets, or all of these and more. Of the most common seen in Michigan are the creation of open spaces, and efforts to become more bicycle and pedestrian-friendly.

The report concludes that in Michigan overall, approximately one-third (34%) of local jurisdictions report pursuing the strategy in 2013, up from 21% that said the same in 2009. Furthermore, 51% of Michigan’s local leaders say they believe placemaking can be effective in their jurisdictions as of 2013, up from 39% who felt this way in 2009.

The report shows a 13% increase over the last four years in the number of jurisdictions that report that they are engaged in or are planning for placemaking as an economic development strategy, effective in growing local economies. This makes sense, given that more than half – a group that has also grown considerably – of local leaders believe placemaking can be effective.

Local officials looking to boost their placemaking skills have many resources to help them. From the Project for Public Spaces, http://www.pps.org to a new report “Placemaking in Legacy Cities: Opportunities and Good Practices,” from the Center for Community Progress, to the Michigan Municipal League’s PlacePlans program, the growing number of placemakers has the opportunities to be well informed. These groups provide information resources for Michiganders participating at any level of the policymaking process. As an advocate for placemaking, of which community engagement is a critical component, we are happy to see information sharing to help serve the process.

 

Photo from the Michigan Municipal League via Flickr

We are quite sure you’ve already heard about the planned Arena District in Detroit, which comes with a price tag of $650 million, and what we hope you’re aware of is the coalition that is trying to steer it in the right direction. The Corridors Alliance is “a community coalition of Detroit residents who believe in the equitable revitalization of the city’s core,” and they are working to make sure the development results in shared prosperity for all Detroiters. We sat down with Francis Grunow, a member of the Corridors Alliance and resident of the development area, to discuss the district, the alliance, and the potential impact their involvement may have in the process.

For about three years, the Alliance has been working to ensure that the arena development’s impact on local residents and the surrounding areas is as positive as it can be. To achieve this, they believe the foundation of the development process should be the inclusion of the community, and their mission is providing that opportunity, hopefully eventually in an official capacity.  Grunow explains: “Because these projects are using public money, and because many of the decisions are being made not by publicly elected officials but by private developers, there needs to be accountability to the public, and they deserve the ability to participate in those decisions.”

“The message is,” says Grunow, “this project stands for something bigger going on in the community – it is not isolated, and the implications of the project citywide are significant.”  This development won’t just affect a few blocks surrounding the arena – and the Alliance wants to make sure all impacts are considered.

One of the ways they’re doing this is by advocating that we expand the way we define the affected area. The Alliance noticed that the catalyst areaas defined by the developers, which limits who is considered a “stakeholder” – didn’t reflect a very holistic view of the neighborhoods in the area and excluded a lot of vulnerable populations, housing, businesses and schools. For example, the Brush Park neighborhood, which sits directly across Woodward Avenue from the arena footprint, is not included in the catalyst area—but there is no doubt the development would have an impact on people living there. For this reason, the Alliance has defined a larger impact area (see map) to more accurately include all of the neighborhoods that will be affected.

To do so, they looked at the other catalytic forces – urban elements that are also driving development – in the larger scope of greater downtown with the idea that these anchors could push in to each other, connecting and working together, resulting in healthier neighborhoods.  Anchors like Wayne State University to the north and the Central Business District to the south, if more meaningfully integrated with the arena district, could benefit the whole city.

The specific aspects of urban development that the Alliance is focusing on provide a comprehensive set of guidelines.  These priorities include on connectivity, collaboration and integration with existing groups and communities, preservation of neighborhood identity and authenticity, and proper consideration for social justice concerns. With these they aim to task the project to maximize the integration of the development between neighborhoods for the good of the city.

As things start to move faster and decisions are finalized, the Alliance is working hard to get their foot in the door.

This Friday, Detroit City Council is expected to vote on the expansion of the Detroit Downtown Development Authority (DDA) tax area to include the arena and catalyst area, a major step in the approval process.  Council has agreed to look at the Corridor Alliance’s list of requests, thereby considering negotiating some or all aspects of it in the concession-management agreement (the agreement between the DDA and Olympia Development).

The Alliance hopes to ensure positive impact of the development on the area through the implementation of a negotiated Community Benefits Agreement, a binding contract between the developer, the appropriate granting authority (the DDA) and the community.  The Alliance has requested that Detroit City Council require the agreement to be negotiated and signed before any more votes on the project are made.

Complicated, we know—and an interesting and relevant study in civic participation.  Essentially, the Corridors Alliance is asking City Council to put into written contract those development elements that have emerged, over the last few years of community meetings for businesses and residents in the catalyst area, as likely to maximize the benefits of the arena for the greater community of Detroit.

These elements, which include provisions like, At least 51% of the construction workforce must be bona fide Detroit residents, and 15% of all new/rehabilitated rental housing units will be affordable for residents at or below 50% of Area Median Income.  We especially love this one: A “complete streets” design to increase opportunities for alternative transportation including walking and biking, and a decrease in vehicular traffic.” The rest of the elements the Alliance has detailed can be found on their Facebook page.

While developers may occasionally, of their own volition, seek community input, there is little accountability; when it comes down to decision-making, they hold all the chips.  “I think that the fact that the agreement is negotiated and signed means something.” Grunow adds, “This means the community is part of the development in a more meaningful way.”  And that’s a victory.

As the Alliance continues its efforts, we encourage you to find a way to get involved.  Grunow urges all of you in the city to join them before City Council this Friday, December 20th at 9AM to voice your opinion during the public comment.  Grunow stressed how important it is for Detroiters to show up and express concern over how the dollars are spent.

If you would like to play the Corridor’s Alliance Game – a replica of the district with moving pieces so players can design their own district – contact the Alliance at corridors.alliance@gmail.com.

You can also participate by taking their online survey here.

Use Hashtag #DetArenaDistrict on Twitter to follow and engage in this conversation.

This summer, the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) approved the widening of both I-94 and I-75 despite dozens of protesters speaking out against the plans. In early December, an alliance of community organizations and individuals sent a letter to the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) and the Federal Highway Administration requesting a new Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the I-94 plans, alleging that the previous EIS is outdated and therefore inaccurate. Then, last Friday (Dec. 6), SEMCOG approved an amendment to fast track the projects, again, despite more public outcry against it.

On the flip side, the City of Detroit is considering downsizing another highway, I-375, a one-mile stretch connecting I-75 and Jefferson along the east side of downtown.  The Downtown Development Authority planned to hire a consultant by Dec. 6th to explore the feasibility of the boulevard option; we are awaiting an announcement.

I-375 opened to traffic in 1964 and is controlled by MDOT as part of the Federal Highway System.  In its current state, needed repair costs are estimated at $80 million–an amount MDOT says they do not have.  MDOT adds that, when investing that kind of money in infrastructure, it is prudent to ensure that the transportation infrastructure plans support the total vision for the city’s future.

Naturally, Michiganders (and others) are already coming out in favor and opposition to the potential plans.

Advocates believe reconnecting of the Lafayette Park and other east side residential neighborhoods and Eastern Market to downtown could have major positive impact on the whole area, improving walkability and strengthening the connective tissue within and between all of the districts.  Cities all over the world have been reversing the highway boom of the mid-1900s, opting instead for density and alternative forms of mobility, guided by the idea that these conditions lead to happier, healthier cities and people in them.  In light of these changing trends, and the shifts taking place because people are asking for more walkable (livable) urban cores, the boulevard option appeals to many.

MDOT Director Kirk Steudle says the boulevard option could open up around twelve acres for development adjacent to Greektown, a lively neighborhood, which could generate revenue for the (bankrupt) city.  As a mended urban fabric may lead to higher land values—it could eventually generate even more revenue for the city.  Proponents add that it would also save the city money over time as repairing the sunken interstate is so costly.  Preliminary estimates at boulevarding the interstate are also pegged at $80 million, but could be partially funded through a public-private partnership, easing the strain on the city.

As the main east side link to nearby freeways, opponents say downsizing would cause congestion; commuter traffic – up to 80,000 cars per day – would need to find alternate routes.  Some locals, too, appreciate the convenience the freeway brings, noting how quickly they can travel to other parts of the city via the corridor.  Opponents also worry that lowering access to downtown venues used for conventions and other attractions could hurt the economy.

To counter the congestion argument, boulevard advocates they say that with the reconnecting of the city grid, and a boulevard in its place, the cars that use I-375 could be dispersed without adding congestion, and that an appropriate design of the boulevard could facilitate easy movement.

The consultant team is supposed to have a proposal next July.

Engage

We are pleased to see mention of “community engagement meetings” and “stakeholders to be consulted” among the details.  But it is not only the responsibility of the consultants and planners.  Everyone in Southeast Michigan should take advantage of the opportunity and voice their opinion.  The best way for this process to result in a plan that will provide a balanced solution for everyone’s needs is for everyone to participate.

Part of Let’s Save Michigan’s mission is to motivate Michiganders to take part in these discussions.  We love seeing citizens stepping forward, and using their voice to express well informed, detailed reasoning as part of a discussion.  We especially love when people put the needs of an entire community at the forefront of their argument, not just their own.

A typical Highway Debate

The debates happening in Michigan right now are pretty typical – typical because ever since we mapped out our American landscape with the highway system, people have been working to resolve the resulting conditions created in our cities.  These decisions frequently turn into the highway debate, and it has gone around in circles countless times in just about every city throughout the country.

We applaud John Gallagher, who in his recent Detroit Free Press article called on us to “raise the level of the debate on the role of freeways in Detroit and other cities.” Instead of repeating the discussion that has happened time and time again, again, let’s reach a deeper understanding and design a transportation system based on the region’s priorities.

 

Photo credit: Bob Allen, Crain’s Detroit Business

First, we would like to say that all of the entries were spectacular and exceeded our expectations.  Not only did each project demonstrate creative thinking and in-depth problem solving, we were impressed by the well-thought out ideas and unique touch each project had.  The winners were selected from both a public vote and a judges’ vote, weighted equally.  We also appreciated the range of projects we saw, from ambitious schemes to practical opportunities for improvement.  And now for the winners…

Our Highways for Habitats Contest Winner: The Detroit Lid! from livingLAB!

The Detroit LID! Project demonstrates forward thinking at its best.  livingLAB combined knowledge of the current conditions of the area with potential deriving from major projects on the horizon, and identified a great opportunity for improvement.  As is the case in many cities across the U.S., Detroit’s major highways were built right into our city centers, in most cases causing a great divide.  As Detroit continues its resurgence, closing the gap in its urban core via a “lid” over I-75 that separates two vital neighborhoods is a potentially transformative step.  Their design found a way to balance the need to continue moving traffic through with providing a seamless transition for walkers and bikers above.  Their innovative solution to stitch back together the city’s fabric would enhance the area and provide for its residents, with potential to draw in new faces to help it grow.  Well done, livingLAB!  We appreciate your bold thinking!

Congratulations to livingLAB for winning a new Detroit Bikes bicycle! Happy riding!

Runner Up: M-5 (Grand River Ave) at MLK Design from Jimmy McBroom!

The M-5 project took into account the context and its many variables, and we appreciate that while Jimmy chose an intersection to enhance with non-automobile related elements, he first tackled the intersection’s designed purpose – moving cars through safely (he got the highest score for “balance”).  As Jimmy said in his submission, his design addresses current problematic traffic patterns and confusion for drivers, as well as increasing safety for non-motorists and creating redevelopment opportunities at the meeting place of several neighborhoods.  Jimmy’s design maintains the main thoroughfare, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.  Jimmy then added components for more complete streets and multi-modal use, like protected cycletracks, road diets, and transit facilities.  We love how Jimmy took into account the intersection’s location within the city, and gave aim for it to serve as a link to Detroit’s west side.  He saw the potential the site has to truly become a “place” and the impact better, safer streets can have on the community, and he showed this in his design through considerations for the surrounding land.

We would like to give big thanks everyone who participated in the contest – the entrants, the voters, our judges, and our readers.  The goal of this contest is to show all of you that you have great ideas and bring an understanding of your hometown to the table, and that you should get involved in the decisions that shape your community’s future.