Den of the Cyphered Wolf

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Editorial: I Really Want a Downtown

I. Background
II. Definition
III. How a Downtown Provides Solutions
IV. Challenges in Creating a Downtown in Southfield
A. Public Transportation
B. Walkability
C. Government's Role
D. Economy
E. Land and Land Rights
F. The Resident's Don't Want it
V. Inspiration
A. Ann Arbor
B. East Lansing
C. Royal Oak
D. Tel-Twelve Mall
E. Northland Mall
F. Fairlane Mall
VI. Problems Inherent in the idea of a Downtown to be overcome
A. Parking
B. Public Safety
C. Residential Disturbance (Light and Sound)
D. Environmental Concerns
E. Traffic Flow and Layout
VII. Terms and Concepts
A. Mixed Uses
B. Overlay District
C. Walkability
D. Public Sphere
1. Events
2. Performance Space
3. Sense of Place
E. Aesthetics
1. Varied/Updated Architecture
2. Landscaping
3. Art
VIII. Gaining Loans and Mitigating Financial Risk
IX. Stores
X. Amenities


Well there is no easy way to say this and I have a point to make that can't really deftly and tactfully sidestep it. Southfield is a bit of a letdown from Ann Arbor and East Lansing. I've lived in both and then came back. If I had the cash, I don't but if I did, I probably wouldn't be living in this place. See Southfield is a no frills kind of a place. Don't get me wrong. It's great at the essentials. Police and Fire? Top notch. Waste management? Great. Education? Pretty good. Roads?

What was my point again? Oh yeah, living in a college town you get used to certain amenities. I know what you're thinking.

But you forget, my personality.

Yeah. I never went to a frat party or had any wacky hijinks, accept for that one time I got an atomic wedgie. And yes, that actually did happen once. My nads do not forgive; my nads do not forget. Accounts will be made.

No, I'm talking about the atmosphere of the town. Ultimately I had two really big disappointments, lack of a downtown area and lack of a decent public transportation system.

While I lament both of these, there are good reasons for both. Mainly the people of Southfield. A lot of the stuff I think of as a no-brainer, they don't want. What can I say; that's democracy. I am not Southfield. We vote on elected officials to be our proxies, and they can't just shove stuff down people's throats. As frustrated as I am I wouldn't have it any other way.

Even if they did, you can't do jack squat without greenbacks. And nobody public or private has the cash for a massive transformative project of the scale I'm thinking of. There is no way the government could or should do a project like this alone and the developers don't want to take on risk in this economy. But a man can dream so.


A good place to always start is a definition.

In a nutshell, when I say a downtown area I mean a concentrated area where the business of the day can be conducted and tended to. A place for people to work, be entertained, and served with relative ease due to its concentration of businesses and the amenities that such a concentration lends itself to.

How It Provides Solutions

Southfield doesn't really have that. All of the stores are spread out. On campus, I could go out and by foot take care of everything that needed to be taken care with time to spare, because travel time was a non factor. Most of the stores I visited were right next to each other. Books, food, clothes, drycleaners, barber. All right there. Here in Southfield, running errands is a marathon because everything is so spread out. Well that and lack of public transportation. But yeah.

I was used to being able to go out, go to the bookstore, the ATM, grab a slice, and pick up my dry cleaning in about an hour. Since everything was so close literally nothing was out of your way. Here even with a car between all of those you're looking at an hour just in travel time, and I always thought it ridiculous that it takes you more time to travel than to actually do the thing you were traveling to do.

Okay now I'll be the first to admit that up until this point this has all been a bit personal. But I really do feel that the lack of a downtown area is a detriment to the city. The suburbs largely developed the way they did as a retreat from urban life, but in the suburban flee from urbanization we've forgotten that cities develop the way they do for a reason. Whether we want to admit it or not, Southfield is a city with a city's problems. People need stuff. They have stuff to do. And some of aspects of suburban life are just plain inefficient. And I hate inefficiency. Paradoxically we work so we have the time and money not to. Why waste that time and money.

Part of the point of a downtown is that it is a human hub. Since it's a place people need to go they do. And where there are people there is money to be made. And money is good.

It creates a critical mass of people that allows various functionalities, ultimately becoming a public square.

See, a well planned, well developed downtown helps feed itself, because the retailers, artists, event planners, nonprofits and city planners know they have foot traffic. And that's one of the hardest parts of running anything, getting people off their butts, out of the house, out of their cars and to the stores. If you have to go to the bank and the sports store is literally 10 feet away it's about time you bought that new basketball.

Let's face it Southfield needs retail. And retail needs to survive this economy. Right now we have retail and office vacancy issues. A downtown might help.

Challenges To Creating A Downtown in Southfield
Before I continue let me just freely admit I'm creating imagination land.

There are several challenges. So let's explore why I don't get nice things.

Public Transportation: For a variety of reasons the Detroit Metropolitan area in general and Southfield in particular have developed in a way that makes it difficult to get around without a car. The day and age where a car was a given in people's lives has past. In post-recession America the two car, mortgaged house American dream may need to be rethought.

To be frank this is a regional problem, and cannot be solved by Southfield or Oakland County alone. To be honest, I'm a bit disillusioned about true regional cooperation. There is an enormous political rift between Detroit and its suburbs and that rift includes conflicts between the suburbs themselves. Nobody wants to do anything if it helps someone else even if it helps themselves.

But I digress. My point is that a downtown exists within a system. Isolation is commercial death. If people can't get to and from the downtown it's kind of pointless. The point of transportation, not just public transportation is to get people from place to place and holes in the system are counterproductive. Right now SMART is cutting parts of its service. DDOT is worse.

Now there is not much the Southfield municipal government can do on its own to solve a regional problem but they can do a few things. They could try to offer more taxi cab licenses, try to develop better relationships with the DDOT, SMART, and other transportation services and companies.

My view is that one of the main responsibilities of a municipal government is moving people around. Creating a system where people can near effortlessly get from point A to point B. That's why cities own and maintain roads. That's why they have traffic and parking enforcement.

Public transportation and pedestrian transportation should be no different.

Walkabilty: Part of the point of a downtown is its walkability. It is easier to get people to alter their course and poke their head in to a store if they are on foot. In a car by the time you realize you've seen an interesting store you're already a half-mile down the road. Southfield has enormous gaps in its sidewalk system. Again I am disappointed but these problems came about for various reasons. In order to build sidewalks the city would probably need to widen streets. In order to do that, they would have to secure the rights from land owners to do it. Furthermore the building and maintaining of sidewalks would require money that would have to be paid by tax payers or a special assessment from the residents.

There is a plan for non-motorized transportation, but is a very long term plan, and I keep getting the feeling like some people are annoyed that there even is a Non-Motorized transportation plan.

Government's Role: Look the truth of the matter is that such a large scale retail development isn't necessarily the government's job. They don't have the money and even if they did the brunt of the heavy lifting should be conducted by private enterprise. And right now they aren't biting.

Don't get me wrong a job like this cannot and will not be done by private enterprise alone. Funding and legal guidance would be needed from the government. There would almost certainly have to be some sort of rezoning. Also, a project like this would require data that only the state and municipal government is able generate. Traffic surveys, water line routes, road drainage studies, parcel maps.

It's almost the definition of a public-private partnership.

Economy: See the problem with any type of development is that you are depending on tenants to have the money to pay for their leases. In this economy, let's just say "Grand opening. Grand Closing".

Nobody is going to pay to buy land, demolish existing buildings, get lawyers and architects to draw up plans, and do all the other thousand things it takes to build something if they feel that they are ultimately not going to be able to keep tenets and businesses in the buildings.

Land and Land Rights: As previously mentioned in the walkablity section, a project like this would require land, and lots of it. We would in essence be creating a new district. The truth of the matter is that many of the buildings in Southfield are aging. Moreover the city needs to be repurposed. There is far too much office space (the office vacancy rate is greater than 20%), and probably a tad too much residential as well. The city's character has changed and its layout needs to change as well.

Moreover, the city has aged. Several buildings require maintenance or flat out reconstruction. Now don't get me wrong. It's not as though buildings are toppling over, but from a real estate and economic perspective, tastes and technology have changed. Some updates can be done to buildings to make them more modern, but realistically in some cases it would just be easier to knock them down and start fresh. Every month an older building loses prospective buyers and tenants to a newer one is lost capital.

And that's a challenge. As much as I feel land may be put to better use, you can't just force people out of their homes and businesses. Part of me feels that money as, scarce as it is, is the great lubricator, but my gut tells me that this city has folks who wouldn't sell their property for 5 times the market value, especially in this economy where they may have purchased it for three times its current market value.

The Residents Don't Want It: You know everyone likes the idea of a downtown. But not the stuff that you need to do to get it. Public Transportation? No. Sidewalks? No. Restaurants? No. Mixed Uses? No. Music Venues? No. College Students? No. Overlay Districts? No. Public art exhibits? No. (That one needs a little clarifying. See now people have gotten used to the idea of temporary outdoor art exhibits in the city but, a year ago, Christ.)

One of these days I'm going to bring up the idea of buskers just to get a reaction.

My point is all of this stuff is what comes together to make a downtown. You might not be able to get big developers, but most, though not all of those are votes or issues that came up over the past year in council.

Okay, so you're looking at me and going. Miles what you want is a pipe dream. Well let's see where I got it.

Ann Arbor and East Lansing: Both have beautiful, vibrant, walkable, busy downtown areas. 'Nough said I've already pined about them.

Ann Arbor

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East Lansing

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Royal Oak: You know every time I talk about the downtown you know what I hear. "But Greg those were in the big college towns. They had all that university money to help them." Well Royal Oak isn't a university town. It isn't a large city and it has a relatively thriving downtown. With luck, proper planning, and willing populous, we could have one too.

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Tel-Twelve Mall: Right now Tel-Twelve Mall is the closest thing in Southfield I can think of to what I have in mind. It is the condensed walkable commercial hub in my head with a few peccadilloes.

There is an ugly sea of concrete surrounding it, and compared to the others it really small but, I will take what I can get.

View Larger Map

Northland Mall:Whenever I bring up the idea of a commercial hub for Southfield everyone brings up Northland Mall. I would agree but Northland mall just doesn't have the stores and services to meet my definition, a place where the business of the day can be tended to. Northland has become a relative ghost town with a 2009 occupancy rate of 70%

Problems Inherent to a Downtown
If it isn't clear yet even though I don't believe it will ever happen, I'm writing this as though I believe it would.

Hypothetically if we were to build a downtown in Southfield, we would have to be aware of and attempt to mitigate the problems inherent in one.

Parking: One of the things that make a downtown aesthetically pleasing is lack of a blacktop ocean, but that blacktop ocean serves a purpose. In the planning of a downtown careful thought needs to be placed on parking. I feel that Southfield has in general been a bit unimaginative in its parking lots.

I guess my point it that we really need to rethink the parking in this city. Multistory parking structures, underground parking structures, common parking lots, or (I know it will never fly, but they could create special rules for the downtown district) the street.

Public Safety: Where there are people there is crime, and where there are densely constructed buildings filled with goods there is fire risk. I have a couple of ideas. In the city of Southfield there are already multiple fire stations. Perhaps one could be located in the downtown area. Furthermore make the downtown a special police district with a station, both as a crime deterrent and as a reduction to response time.

Also, when I was in college there were several public safety amenities, pedestrian lighting, blue boxes (a special street phone that was a direct line to the police), and safety seminars.

Also, the council has the power to make the downtown a special district (part of the point wouldn't you say) with special rules to reduce the crime and fire risk. Furthermore in the theoretical - who am I kidding - hypothetical, planning stages keep the police and fire departments in the loop and take suggestions from them also look at national and even international best practices, especially relating to a city in transition.

Residential Disturbance (Light and Sound): Okay, let me be honest here. Both, in Ann Arbor and in East Lansing I lived about a mile and a half from the train station. As long as I closed my windows and blinds at night it didn't bother me, and in my mind it was well worth it to live within walking distance of my favorite pizza place and book store. McDonel hall fo' life.

But as I've already said I'm not everyone. Since the light and sound wouldn't be a pebble, in my shoe I haven't really thought about it, but that doesn't mean it isn't a problem.

I don't know how to solve it, but I would strongly disagree with trying to isolate the district. Again isolation is commercial death.

Environmental Concern: Not unlike what I said with public safety, where there are people there is pollution. A good chunk of it would be generated by the construction and business operations, a lot of it also would be generated just because when you have a lot of people there is trash.

I am not an engineer. But I do know that there are techniques and technology to help mitigate it. Incorporate them into the development, construction and overlay district regulations. That is part of the beauty of new construction. No more asbestos buildings and brand spanking new electrical wiring.

Traffic Flow and Layout: I am fully aware of the fact that what I am proposing would fundamentally change the nature of the city and as a result we would need to rethink the road layout of the city. New streets, reconstructed streets, widened streets, narrowed streets, deconstructed streets, overhead walkways, parking lots, topography studies, drainage studies, traffic studies both pedestrian and automotive, parking studies, weight and weather tolerance studies. It would be an engineering piece of work. Again I'm no engineer but I do know you'll need 'em in spades, and that's not even discussing architecture, water and power systems and construction operations.

Oh I can't help it.

(Fun fact: I was originally an engineering student and at times like this I wonder about the road not traveled and all that jazz. Damn Calc 2.)

Terms and Concepts
Okay so I've talked a lot about why I want a downtown, but what makes a downtown a downtown.

Mixed uses
: The functionality of a downtown comes partially from everything's proximity to everything else. As a result within reason you have a diverse range of land uses especially within the same buildings. For instance, apartments over a coffee shop or a restaurant in an office building basement.

Post WWII suburbia was built upon the premise that people don't want to live or work next door to some land uses and want space, and that's true to an extent but I feel we've taken it a bit too far. Ultimately those are the ideas that have created many of the problems I have discussed. Nobody wants to be near sidewalks, nobody wants to be near restaurants, nobody wants to be near even an office that closes at five in the afternoon. As a result everything has to be spread out creating the deconcentration I'm criticizing.

We need to figure out exactly how land uses impact each other and discover which ones can be consolidated, as well as understand that the city has aged and discover what the people of this Southfield want.

The residents of today may or may not disagree with the vision their parents had for the direction of the city.

Overlay District: If you want the technicality of what an overlay district is here you go.

Basically it's a tool create rules beyond normal zoning. As such it can be used as a tool to help create the type of downtown I'm thinking of.

Walkability: Yeah this is a word you've heard a lot. It basically refers to the ease of which you can walk around a city. It include things like, the size of buildings, sidewalks, the width of streets, the speed of traffic, crosswalks, the setback of building from curb, signs, traffic lights etc.

Sometimes in Southfield you feel like a pioneer walking through the mud.

Public Sphere: Because they are the place to, "conduct the business of the day," downtowns become the defacto gathering place. And as such they become the place of the people; a place for events to be held, speeches to be given and artists to perform. Again one of these days I will propose a busking ordinance just to get a reaction.

Aesthetics: Downtown is a special place and the way residents, consumers, and tenants know that is how it looks. The sidewalk layout, architecture, landscaping, signage, and lighting all come together to say this is the part of town people come ... to do stuff. I'm no architect but I do say there needs to be some reasonable flair. I don't want white concrete brick boxes. Same goes with the landscaping.

Art: To that end I would like some outdoor art. This includes some sort of performance space, like the University of Michigan Diag, but also more conventional outdoor art, statues, and murals.

Financial Risk
Everything I just said costs money. I have no illusions that the chances for gaining a bank loan on this type of project are slim right now. But there are some ways of mitigating risk. Before even asking anyone for funding try to feel out the local business community to see if any existing stores would be willing to relocate and under what conditions they would, do the same for regional franchise managers of the larger companies.

Types of Stores and Services I would Like to See
Accountant Office
Anchor Store/ Department Store
Architectural/ Engineering Firm
Art Supply/Hobby Shop
Beauty Store
Bike Shop
Car Garage/Repair Shop
Clothing Store
Comic Shop
Computer Repair Store
Community Kitchen
Convenience Store
Copy Shop
Dance Hall
Dry Cleaners
Electronics Store
Film Store
Furniture Store
Game Shop
Gas Station
Grocery Store
Hair Salon
Hardware Store
Indoor Performance Space/Venue
Legal Office
Movie Editing and Computer Animation Studio
Movie Theatre
Music Recording Studio
Music Store
Nail Salon
Non-Profit/Community Group Offices
Office Supply Store
Photo Studio
Post Office
Regional Bus Station
Sports Store
Secretary of State Office
Toy Store

Bike racks
Bike/ wheelchair rentals
Blue Boxes
Buskers / Street Performers
Environmentally updated construction
Hot dog carts and other street venders
Interesting yet consistent architectural design
Outdoor Art
Pedestrian Lighting
Plaza/Outdoor Performance Space
Public lockers
Public Transportation
Public Restrooms
Trash Cans
Water Fountains
Widened Sidewalks and other Walkability features

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