Tag Archives: Detroit

People Power

Now there's a reason to be on Woodward Avenue after 5 PM

Shown above is Campus Martius Park in the heart of downtown Detroit, MI. Opened in 2004, this public space has provided a welcome shot in the arm to the beleaguered central city. It’s an example of “placemaking”,  where citizens and stakeholders develop a vision for transforming particular spaces. These spaces in turn can catalyze the surrounding areas, and return a sense of pride and ownership to neighborhoods. Here’s an excellent article about this topic that one of our readers sent in.

The people spoke: take back the streets!

Public input in the design of public spaces has been around for some time. But this newer approach doesn’t use the public as a filter for a preconceived idea, but rather as the primary idea generator. The process can lead to something as simple–yet revolutionary–as reusing part (or all) of a street for pedestrians rather than cars (see Broadway near Times Square in New York City above). It is amazing to be in the middle of New York–where real estate, building costs, and zoning changes are all notoriously expensive and challenging–and enjoy a great public space that’s just asphalt, chairs, and some plantings. No buildings demolished or private property acquired; no expensive design or construction costs. The people wanted to sit in the street and they got it.

Intangible quality

The non-profit Project for Public Spaces (PPS) consults across the world to help developers and cities create great public space, with “placemaking” as a tool. As has been argued here before, every progressive city needs certain things–a modern convention center, good transit, bike lanes, mixed-use zoning, etc. But these items themselves, even when connected through solid holistic planning, don’t necessarily add up to the intangible quality that make a place memorable–drawing attention, businesses, tourists, etc. Court Street in Brooklyn pictured above, with its layers of storefronts, signage, benches, people, and dogs may do as much (or more) for Brooklyn’s image as shiny new condo towers or well-planned bike lanes. PPS helps cities, through people-oriented planning, achieve this quality of place.

It needs to be top-notch, and it needs to avoid the shelf

Which brings us to the Birmingham Comprehensive Plan: the first plan for the City in 50 years that will produce a “policy and strategic framework” that will establish a city-wide vision for the future, how to pursue that vision, and how to get started (full disclosure: your author is on the steering committee for this project). While the initial round of public hearings kicks off Saturday October 22 from 9 AM-1 PM at Birmingham Crossplex, the notion of “placemaking” will most likely be generally, rather than specifically addressed in the Plan. It  will be up to all of us, once the Plan is produced, to insist on great place-making within the individual projects suggested by this Plan.

Civic pride ca. 1971--it didn't last long at this park

Birmingham, like other cities, used top-down approaches to public space for much of its existence. If you have enlightened leaders then this gets you the Olmsted Brothers Park System plan of 1924 (only partially implemented, unfortunately).  Less enlightened leadership and planning departments gave us the redesign of Magnolia (now Brother Bryan) Park, seen above in a 1971 newspaper article. Totally out-of-context A-frame picnic huts, formal reflecting pools, and ugly metal benches were the palette of that era’s City Planning Department. Today these same elements, forlorn and rotting, remain but the public mainly doesn’t care to use this park. What if, instead of the City continuing to spend money annually to keep it up, the park were turned over to a people-powered placemaking process? A vision established, a top designer similar to that used at Railroad Park could be hired to reconstruct this space. The Comprehensive Plan will probably identify Five Points South as a vibrant neighborhood with strengths and weaknesses, one weakness being this park. With the Plan as a roadmap, we can tackle this and other place-making needs around the city by involving good consultants like PPS, and designing from the bottom up, not the top down. Too many good plans have sat on the shelf in this City, from the Olmsted Brothers to the 2004 City Center Master Plan.This time around, actual implementation would be a refreshing change.

The potential for great "place" is here...

A lot of us, despite the challenges and frustrations of the City, have an intuition about the “soul” of Birmingham; the fundamentals of great place-making, we sense, are here. With the right nurturing, we just maybe could turn that long-vaunted “potential” into reality. Hey, if they can ice-skate to Christmas tunes in the middle of Detroit…

[thanks to dig downtown detroit for the Campus Martius pic; Project for Public Spaces for the NYC pics; bhamwiki for the news article; visual2 for the South East Lake neighborhood pic]

Mind the Gap (1)

How many crumbling historic (and gorgeous) buildings do we have to tear down, how many dilapidated Arts and Crafts style bungalows or shotgun houses have to be razed, or how many weedy lots do we have to witness before we do something? We have got to stop wasting the opportunities we have right in front of us before we sprawl our city all the way to Clanton

Why do we have so many gaps in our urban fabric…parking lots where buildings used to be, empty lots in our historic residential neighborhoods, historic houses abandoned or burned down?

There are many reasons, but the result is all about density — or lack of it. If you’re concerned about transit, or grocery stores, or dog parks, or walkable blocks, start thinking about density. Density provides the riders for bus routes or rail, the shoppers for the store, the canines for the park, or the consumers for restaurants, late-night coffee shops, and skate shops–which of course means pedestrian traffic and active storefronts which make a block walkable.

In a city like Birmingham, which used to be denser and more populated, we had, according to the 2000 US Census, 242, 820 residents and a density of 1619 people/square mile. Compare this to the 1950 census, when we had 326,037 residents and a density of 4,993 people/square mile. And our population is estimated to be a good deal less in 2010–closing in on 200,000 residents. [We are talking city limits of Birmingham here, not the metro area, which of course is considerably larger, much more populous, and also even less dense than the city proper].

Then take an older city like Providence, RI: in 1950 it had 248,674 residents and a density of more than twice Birmingham’s at 13,892 persons/square mile. By 2000 it’s population was down to 173,618 but it’s density was still considerable at almost six times Birmingham’s: 9,401/square mile.

Unlike some other cities which have deliberate density initiatives, we have been watching passively as people leave the city without enough new residents to replace them; new land is not annexed for dense development but for sprawling shopping centers; and of course gentrification occurs in certain older, desirable neighborhoods (such as Highland Park and Forest Park), where formerly subdivided residences are renovated back to single-family houses, new zoning laws prevent apartment buildings from easily being constructed, etc.

Abandonment in Detroit courtesy of desertchick.

The extreme end of this spiral is a situation like Detroit, where the mayor in late 2009 gave a startling admonition to his city: instead of pretending to still be the city of 2 million as designed, it should instead “focus on being the best 900,000 populated city that we can be.” (New York Times, Sept. 25, 2009).  His practical argument: the city is wasting tax dollars, man power, and energy by cleaning, policing, fire-preventing, and generally maintaining city streets where a large number of houses are mainly abandoned. People have a hard time imagining being forced from their own neighborhoods to live in denser cores, with the old, underused neighborhoods being turned into green space–but this, in effect, is what the mayor suggested.

OK. We aren’t quite there yet, but unless we institute policies to combat the trend, we may get there. Already we have a strained police force and fire force whose jobs are much more difficult due to the spotty inhabitation of certain neighborhoods. It’s all inefficient in so many ways.
Lacking any density initiatives locally (see Vancouver’s density charter as an example), developers have been creating their own density mainly as a perception of market demand. A few years ago we designed the Southside Townhouses as an urban infill project right off Highland Avenue.
Southside Townhouses–possibly the only 5-story rowhouses in Ala.!

They are in an eclectic neighborhood at an intersection surrounded by buildings of many styles and types–historic old apartment buildings, a large mid-rise modern apartment block, and some new and old houses. There are many neighborhood activists who objected to the multi-family project, as well as the appearance, so I would describe the project as locally controversial, but in the end I stand by its scale, its materials, the way it addresses a very multi-layered intersection, and of course its replacement of a vacant lot with some density.
Another controversial project was later constructed just up the street, when the former Otto Marx mansion was torn down to make way for 2600 Highland, a condo tower. While bringing new residential density to its site, the loss of the historic house was painful to many. Thanks to dystopos for the shots below of the old mansion about to disappear, and a rather poignant shot of an older woman scrutinizing the marketing billboard for the new tower:
An example of new density that has thus far avoided the controversy of our own project and 2600 Highland is the CityVille Project put together byCorporate Realty: A half-block replacement of 1- and 2- story commercial and parking lots with a mid-rise, mixed-use development with apartments above and shops and restaurants below, with a parking deck buried in mid-project. Here’s a recent pic from the Cityville website showing the current state of construction:
We have big problems in this city with sprawl, and all the negative social, economic, and aesthetic issues that come with it. Re-densifying neighborhoods is one way to start solving these issues. And the denser a neighborhood, the more activity and amenities it supports, which in turn draws more people to enjoy these things, and we reverse the cycle that we’ve been in for decades here. And it can start with building a small, affordable, cool house on an empty lot in Norwood or College Hills. Or, bringing more housing to suburban centers such as downtown Homewood or Mountain Brook Village.
Coming soon…more infill inspirations from around town and around the country.