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.

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