Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Just Keep Giving...Until there is nothing left to give

Talk about a reality check! John George with the Motor City Blight Busters took me and a colleague through his transformation of Old Redford the other day. I was blown away....

They have taken control of their little corner of the world in order to give something back. The Old Redford theatre is amazingly playing movies on the weekends. Back alleys have been transformed into community gardens and gathering spots. Every Saturday night, people gather at the Artist Village, to listen to music and relax.

Old masonry commercial buildings that have long since lost their usefulness have been retasked into blank canvases for murals and private gardens. This local example is the most creative adaptive reuse i have seen in this city yet. In a town and country that prides itself on demolishing anything it had ever built, John George's gut instincts should be a lesson for planners, developers and architects the world over. Its a simple lesson, and one that seems to be lost even on the next generation of planners and new urbanists. As cries of demolition and destruction of the past sixty to one hundred years of history seem to be growing louder and more pronounced, this man simply builds on what is already there.

Energy is a precious thing. The energy to build structures in the first place should not be taken for granted. No matter how misguided their pursuits. The energy spent to demolish a structure should be considered only as an end all, be all last resort. In fact, the act should be criminalized unless cities and municipalities can prove that all other options have been taken. But, not just for the site of the existing building, but for the entire city. This is especially true in Detroit. In a city with miles and miles of vacant land, our leaders and our citizens fixate on existing structures as barriers to progress. The real barrier to progress is not promoting growth and accountability of private property holders. We need to give reasons to build, not to tear down.

So John George, i commend you. You are a visionary. Ever since that day 20 years ago when you took a stand against a rotting out crack den. Your instincts to simply build upon what we have, to simply make lemonade out of lemons, and not to try and cut out the roots in order to grow an apple tree is a shining beacon of hope. Hope not only to the citizens that live in the neighborhood, who have waited so long for someone else to care about their city, but hope for developers that can now see good investment dollars going to simple labor intensive expenditures to raise property values and build communities. Hope to our city leaders that can now see the beauty in the old and decrepit. There is wisdom in those old masonry walls and steel beams.


Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Regionalism NOW!

That was, effectively, the mantra of our transportation speakers tonight at Russel Industrial Center, hosted by Model D and the Detroit Chamber of Commerce. Regionalism will save us. From regional trailways to regional mass transit, regionalism is the word we should be embracing.

However, i should point out one little blip, that might have been overlooked at the meeting tonight. The very last speaker (i forget his name), said something profound. He was talking about the importance of TIFF (Tax increment finance fund) money to be used as the local match to federal dollars. What he said was so critical to our nations survival that words fail me in expressing the importance and ramifications of its portent. What he said was simply this 'we need to invest in our transportation corridors'. He precluded that statement with the historical argument of why this is so important, he said 'we have tried the whole sprawl thing, and we know now that it simply does not work'.

O.K., so i'm 'paraphrasing'. but whatever. He is right, we tried the whole endless suburb thing and have subsequently witnessed the complete meltdown of our economic and environmental foundations. We are now a country without a firm footing. Call me paranoid, but i'm scared to death of 1.3 billion Chinese holding the note to our land. If you were scared of Iran getting Nuclear weapons, you should be more scared of the United States of China.

Hopefully, those fears are unfounded, and i'll welcome anyone that wants to come to this country to start a business and help us grow (but i won't stand an invasion). But it doesn't lessen the importance of investing in stable development patterns. We are a mobile civilization. We built this country on transportation innovation. We will save this country by innovating again.

So get too innovating :).

Monday, October 20, 2008

World Changing Blog...hopefully

The following is a blog i hope will be posted on http://www.worldchanging.com/.

Dawn in Detroit:

So what happens when a city that changed the course of the world wakes up to the consequences of its actions? Where does a city, built on manufacturing, diversity and transportation, turn to when the world it created can no longer afford to sustain the 20th century model of consumption? The answers are varied, but from the moment that Peter Kageyama kicked off the Creative Cities Summit 2.0 in October 2008, the gauntlet had been thrown.Detroit now finds itself laid bare under the full brilliance of the sun on the dawn of a brave new world.

In order to survive, Detroit will need to get creative. This is an understatement, to say the least, and an old hat for cities around the world dealing with millions of citizens. However, the circumstances that have carried Detroit through the periods of global influence, prosperity and ultimate decline, have set the stage for a population with the means and the know-how to redefine the American City. All that was lacking was the underlying imperative to do so. So, armed with an arsenal of World Changers, the Creative Cities Summit 2.0 has ignited the flames of competition within the city.

Detroit is no stranger to competition. For years, however, the competition has come from the top down. Take, for example, the malicious dismemberment of the street car system by General Motors and Firestone in order to secure a future for the busses and automobiles that they produced. Take, for example, the advent of the 5-dollar work day that signaled the rise of the middle class. Take, for example, the single-minded pursuit of the ‘City of the Future’, from the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair, culminating in the American Landscape we are now all too familiar with.

Now combine the City’s competitive nature from the top down, with a budding grass-roots movement towards sustainability. For years, inspired Detroiter’s have worked tirelessly to create havens of innovation and enterprise. Business and technology incubators have sprouted up in the form of Tech Town under the guiding touch of one the largest urban universities in the country, Wayne State. Arts and culture have been a driving force behind the resurgence of Detroit’s midtown area. Local artists have staked claims within abandoned car factories, warehouses and disinvested neighborhoods. Small businesses have sprouted up to fill the gaps in tourism, retail and groceries; all promoting walkability and appealing to the lifestyle of a locavore.

Somewhere in the middle, the bottom-up drivers of a new Detroit needed to meet with the global leaders of finance and manufacture. For too many years, the outcome of such a meeting would be perceived to result in a cataclysmic clash of competing interests. Michigan, and it’s Metropolitan areas has never been perceived as fertile ground for the venture capitalist looking for innovation and the prospect of wealth that comes from risk taking. With the message outlined from the Creative Cities Summit 2.0, and with inspiration given by leaders in innovation, the tables have now turned.

The dreaded meeting between grass-roots and corporate moguls now seems fit for a marriage made in heaven. Developers and real-estate professionals, with nowhere left to turn amidst crashing market forces, are turning to the organic neighborhoods for guidance. Local Farmers markets are proving to be safe havens for investment. Creative corridors are luring in the next generation of urbanites. Entrepreneurs are finding out the benefits of catering to local appetites and conscientious consumption. Even car companies are starting to see the lucrative possibilities of small urban vehicles as the Chevy Volt is set to start production in Detroit’s Hamtramck Assembly Plant.

So when the sun set last night and Detroit lay down in its bed, it exhaled a comforting sigh of satisfaction rising from the depths of its soul. It had changed the world. But, as dawn approached, the Motor City opened its’ eyes to the carnage it had created. The fires had burned uncontrolled through the night and nations had mobilized to fuel the flames. The world had changed. Now under the full glare of the morning sun, the gravity of the situation can now be seen in all of its uncompromising colors and shades of grey. Detroit has now unleashed its task force to surmise the damage and to greet the dawn in a spirit of cooperation and shared goals, for all of our survival.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Raising Detroit's economy from the dead

Lately i've been advising people i know to pool their money together to start local banks. Today i came across this blog where the term was aptly coined 'locabucks'. You don't have to read the blog as it really has no pertinence here. The writer was reposting an article about how some European countries were able to work through the Great Depression (don't tell me that fleeting thoughts of tent cities sprouting up in Campus Martius hasn't crossed your mind) by creating their very own currency.

So all my sage advice may have been barking up a wrong tree with all of the local credit unions we have around here, but here's the difference. Local banks would solely be invested in the community they belong to. But don't get too excited, there is one more element that would be required to make this work and to breathe life into our communities. The local bank would have to set a deal with the City to guarantee a portion of property taxes.

I've been told that this idea would be similar to a TIFF (Tax Increment Finance Fund). I'm not an economist, so i'll take their word for it. In my mind, the bank would set a geographic area and be guaranteed a precentage of property taxes to loan money against. For example, the Palmer Park Bank would set itself up as a not-for-profit bank and would lend low interest loans to the residents of Palmer Park. The residents would use that money for home improvement repairs, education expenses or even be applied to developers that would seek to build concientious developments under the strict supervision of the local Community Development Corporation.

Feel free to nail me to the stake for this proposal, but i welcome any thoughtful insight you may have to see if this thing has legs.


Sunday, October 5, 2008

Santa came early...with last years X-Box?

I am aware that this post does not specifically address Detroit in the present term. A large retail developer has not set their sites within the city limits for a long time now (not counting the 8 mile & Woodward initiative). This post is about Grand Sakwa's development proposal for the city of Royal Oak at 13 mile and Coolidge.

The implications of the outcome of this development will bode significantly for the City of Detroit as Grand Sakwa creeps in closer to the city limits from the outer-burbs, setting it's sights on the organic communities coming alive within the city proper. But, for now, this is where Grand Sakwa, the City of Royal Oak and its citizens will need to duke it out, and a definition of a 'walkable' environment will need to be reached.

If an amenable definition of 'walkable' cannot be reached, we can expect a 'business as usual' model of growth for our communities. And even if it is not Grand Sakwa, it will be another large retailer eying the City of Detroit soon. Remember, Santa came early to large corporate interests this year in the form of a $750 billion buyoff from everyday taxpayers, and those interests are hungry to tap into new markets that spark of the word 'sustainable'.

Royal Oak will need to step up to the plate and welcome the opportunity to marry the services we need with the stewardship we demand. In essence, Royal Oak is presented with the first local example of a tax-payer base having a direct stake in a development through the lending institutions as financers. Effectively, making all of us part owners and setting a precedent on how our new investments will be handled.

Though one of the larger 'inner ring' suburbs, Royal Oak has been building itself towards a consensus of having 'walkable' environments that attracts money, builds communities and in some small part, influences development in surrounding regions (how many ex-urbs have recently either proposed main street agendas or have tried emulating a main street model). But what Grand Sakwa has effectively left out of their 'walkable' development plan, is the word 'community'.

They claim that it is a 28 million dollar development. Their pitch is that is a 'walkable' retail center set to have a grocery store and a standalone restaurant component with enough parking to take care of Memorial Parks' events. Whatever other amenities it may offer, it is set to compete with the closing Northwood shopping center for semi-regional dollars. Plain and simple.

The site is unique in that it is slightly off the beaten path of Woodward Avenue and is a significant transition point to the neighborhoods and, effectively, the heart beat of the city. Memorial Park is a highly utilized area, and on any given weekend and most days after school, is swarming with kids and families. I won't be the first to dispute the income generating potential for the site, nor it's potential need within the community. Even during the presentation for the city commission, residents were begging for more walkable amenities such as ice cream and a local grocer, which carries with it the appeal of a social atmosphere apparent at our local Oberweissen.

However, if this project is not handled properly, we will have lost an opportunity to bridge a gap that has been sixty years in the making, too become simply another notch in the pole of our propensity to make poor decisions for our region. I will not get into the whole 'downward spiral' effect of traditional strip mall development, but i will simply ask the question (to cut to the heart of the matter) of how the city and Grand Sakwa plan on adressing the burden placed on the already confusing and congested intersections at 13 mile, coolidge and Woodward Ave.?

I could post a hundred examples of walkable environments here in order to help answer that question, but i don't think that would help the cause (I may post some in later blogs though, so stay tuned). In the end, it would only generate more arguments about a traditional zoning ordinance's definition of 'parking requirements' vs. a progressive zoning ordinance's language infused with the notion of a Planned Urban Development (PUD) vs. a 'New Economy' based zoning ordinance, that hasn't even been put on the table yet.

So instead of posting examples of what other cities have done and have proven successful, and in lieu of listing everything that is inherently wrong with the proposal submitted by Grand Sakwa, i will simply encourage everyone to embrace the opportunity.

My hope is that you will walk away from this article with nothin less than a determination to get involved in this process and to encourage the City to approve a PUD development from Grand Sakwa at this sight and even consider backing a plan to help further subsidize a conscientious development under the condition that all of us 'stakeholders' can feel comfortable with the investment in our COMMUNITY.

The proposed site plan is essentially a retail stripmall with a large sea of parking between lease spaces. Grand Sakwa has stated that $200k per year in property tax would go to the city of Royal Oak and $500k would go to the schools, per year. Also, the golf course is probably on board due to a water feature amenity from storm water runoff that gets built when Grand Sakwa gets rid of the driving range and potentially the batting cages. Not really a good trade-off, as golfers would most likely golf at the same course they practice at, but the Golf Course doesn't own the driving range.

Though Grand Sakwa has not stated who the retail/grocery component is yet, it would be a good bet that it will be a large 'chain' to compete directly with small business owned grocers. It is a typical development pattern seen throughout metro-detroit. Go to Northwestern Hwy. and Orchard Lake. Go to Six Mile and Haggerty. For an older model of the same plan, go to 11 mile and middlebelt....etc. (i can't say 15 mile & Coolidge, as it lacks the stand alone restaurant or outbuilding). In short, I wouldn't be the slightest bit surprised if Grand Sakwa's current tenants (Big Box) were looking to indulge us with their idea of 'change' by slipping in a Costco outlet for the residents. Whoopeee! More imported goods over increasingly long distances undercutting local businesses.

Arguably, the only walking that this development is primed for, is from the car to the grocery store or to the park. It potentially would encourage loitering and potential for 'parking lot' crimes (so bring your dobermans). Given, crime is not rampant in Royal Oak, the burden this type of layout places on a city's infrastructure, however, increases drastically over time.

So just let me leave you with this, so you can bounce it around in your heads. It's about the implications on our current standards set for street lane widths, parking space requirements and connectivity to the neighborhoods. Today i witnessed my first small three wheel electric urban vehicle. Now add to that, the prevalence we see of Vespa's and other small urban vehicles. And lastly, add to that, the Chevy Volt and the Chrysler...whatever (give me an electric Smart Car). Though the last two would require normal parking requirements and would fit in easily with the automobile infrastructure, the incentive to demand a new model of the Urban Strip mall has fallen into the hands of the City of Royal Oak.