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How Metro Detroit's car-oriented suburbs are implementing a 'new American dream'

When Mark Miller became Troy's planning director in 2000, he confronted decades of entrenched municipal development policy—best exemplified by the fact that the director Miller replaced had held the job since 1968.
 
Like numerous other metro-area communities, Troy is a classic post-World War II suburb. Established in 1955, the city is dominated by single-family homes and large office and industrial parks that accommodated an influx of families and businesses moving out of the city of Detroit throughout the latter half of last century.
 
But things have changed over the past decade, with both residents and businesses shifting their attention back towards compact, walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods like Ferndale, Royal Oak, Birmingham, and Midtown and Downtown in Detroit. Census data shows that the number of newly built single-family homes nationwide has never bounced back to pre-financial crisis levels, while the number of new dwellings with five units or more hit its highest level last year since 1989.
 
Meanwhile, Troy's office parks are facing a more than 20 percent vacancy. That's left Troy in a position where Miller says it's "a tool of necessity to become a better good place."



According to Douglas Kelbaugh, professor of architecture and urban and regional planning at the University of Michigan, that necessity is very real not only for Troy but for countless other suburbs in the metro area and nationwide.
 
"I think the true auto-dominated, cul-de-sac, sprawl suburb is genuinely and maybe permanently losing its hold on the American imagination," Kelbaugh says. "I think there is a new American dream."
 
That dream is best articulated by the theory of new urbanism, which advocates for dense, walkable, mixed-use communities that offer residents the ability to easily walk from home or work to amenities, entertainment, and public spaces. In Troy, those are among the goals of a new master plan adopted in 2008, as well as new form-based code zoning districts that encourage mixed-use development closer to the road.
 
Of course, Troy is no Ferndale yet, and it's certainly no Birmingham. But Miller cites positive signs, including plans to create a mixed-use development on the city's Civic Center site, as well as the arrival of a few restaurants in formerly office-industrial strongholds.
 
"We've done some things, but it's a long, hard road," he says. "It took Troy 50 years to get to where we are today. It's going to take another 50 years to have dramatic change."
 
Subverting the subdivisions
 
The segue in moving from discussion of Troy to discussion of Sterling Heights is almost difficult not to call attention to, given that the physical transition between the two communities is ironically so indistinct.
 
"Once you get beyond 16 Mile, Troy becomes much more generic and more like Sterling Heights and, to some degree, north Warren," says urban planner Mark Nickita. "There's a lot of sameness there. It gets tough to figure out where you're at."
 
Nickita's architectural design studio, Archive DS, has participated in the drafting of a new Sterling Heights master plan that would help to better set the city apart with a new urbanist character of its own. One key element of the plan as currently drafted revolves around identifying "nodes," many of them lying along intersections of the Mile roads, that have placemaking potential. From there, zoning changes—potentially a form-based code—could encourage or require more walkable, mixed-use development.


"It's changing the nature of the zoning to allow for things that haven't been allowed, in areas that they haven't been allowed," Nickita says.
 
Zoning changes could also help spur the development of housing types that break from the Sterling Heights tradition. Single-family detached homes currently account for two-thirds of the city's housing, but recent trends have clearly shown that housing preferences are changing. The number of single-family detached homes in the city increased by five percent between 2000 and 2010, but townhouses and attached condos increased by a remarkable 75 percent in the same timeframe. The number of duplexes also grew by 69 percent.
 
"There's just a lot of subdivisions that are two-bedroom, three-bedroom, four-bedroom, 1,000 square feet to 2,500 square feet," Nickita says. "There's just rows and rows of that all over the city, and it's a demographic that doesn't allow for anything other than families ... And they recognize that, going forward, they want to be attractive to younger people, younger couples."
 
According to Birmingham-based planner Robert Gibbs, younger people aren't the only ones Sterling Heights stands to attract with those housing shifts. Gibbs says that while millennials are seeking denser housing in walkable urban places, the demographic group at the opposite end of the age scale—baby boomers—is also looking to downsize from cumbersome, high-maintenance homes to smaller housing units with amenities nearby.


"They want about the same square footage, the same number of bedrooms," he says. "The millennials will share the one- and two-bedrooms with friends. The baby boomers won't do that. But there's this convergence of housing demand from our two largest housing groups."
 
Planned non-obsolescence
 
Sterling Heights and Troy are rethinking their development in longer-term, bigger picture ways, but several metro-area suburbs are doing the same with smaller—yet still progressive— projects. One particularly popular approach is the idea of creating a "town center"—designing (or redesigning) a city center or downtown area to incorporate new urbanist elements. Gibbs notes that he's working on Troy's civic center plan, as well as town center plans for Southfield, Wixom, Warren, and another community he's not currently at liberty to discuss.
 
"I think they're afraid of becoming obsolete places," Gibbs says.
 
In Southfield, progress has been slow but sure. Southfield business and economic development director Rochelle Freeman notes that the city has been working to improve the main artery of Evergreen Road for about 15 years, most recently with a 2014 reconstruction project aimed at making the road more walkable. Beyond that, Freeman envisions more city parks and pathways linking Southfield City Centre, Lawrence Technological University, and the city's ambitious mixed-use redevelopment plan for the shuttered Northland Mall.


"We think that's going to be a really nice environment for people to get that same feeling that they're in an urban area, but still have all the advantages of being in a suburban community," Freeman says.
 
To a degree, these town center projects—and bigger-picture new urbanist master plans like those in Troy and Sterling Heights—seek to emulate some of the mojo of a downtown Detroit or Ferndale. They're certainly already competing with those communities. But how many mini-Detroits and mini-Ferndales can the metro area really support? According to Gibbs, plenty. He cites a general rule of thumb that one town center is viable per every 500,000 residents, estimating that the metro area could still support another 10 or so town centers.
 
"There's still over four million people living in the suburbs, many of whom want to stay in the same communities where they raised families, where they're working," he says. "So I think they're complementary to each other."
 
The local leaders who are working to redevelop metro Detroit's postwar suburbs echo that sentiment.
 
"We'll never be a major downtown like Chicago or Detroit," Freeman says of Southfield. "I don't think that's our goal. We know that many people like different options to work and live close to where you enjoy other entertainment options, so we want to have those available. We want to have a full community with a lot of different options for everyone to enjoy."

This piece is part of a solutions journalism series on Metro Detroit's regional issues, conducted in partnership with Metro Matters and guided by our Emerging Leaders Board.
 
This work is funded by the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan. You can view other pieces in this series here.
 

Beaumont Hospital Children's Center opens new facility in Southfield

Excerpt

Children with autism now can receive treatment at the Beaumont Hospital Children's Center in Southfield, thanks to a $1 million gift from the Ted Lindsay Foundation.

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Penske Automotive expands presence in United Kingdom

Excerpt

Penske Automotive Group, a Bloomfield Township-based international transportation services company, has announced an agreement today to acquire CarShop, one of the U.K.’s leading retailers of used vehicles, known for their fixed retail prices and transparent customer buying experience.

Read more.
 

GM to begin autonomous vehicle manufacturing and testing

Excerpt

Just days after Governor Rick Snyder signed the legislation allowing autonomous vehicle testing in Michigan, General Motors Co. has announced plans to begin doing so on public roads. The company also announced it will begin producing the next generation of its autonomous test vehicles at its Orion Township assembly plant in early 2017.

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Labor of love: Otus Supply in Ferndale set to open today

Excerpt

Two years after breaking ground, Otus Supply in Ferndale is now open for full operations.

The 11,000-square-foot restaurant and performance venue, originally dubbed Black Owl, has been divided into more intimate spaces created by Chicago-based designer Alex Morales.

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$1 million gift gives Detroit's tigers something to roar about

Excerpt

The other Detroit tigers are getting a new home. A $1 million donation by the Bloomfield Hills-based Richard C. Devereaux Foundation will help fund a major renovation and expansion project for the tiger habitat at the Detroit Zoo. The expansion project will triple the size of the original space, from 10,326 square feet to 34,000 square feet, and offer multiple viewing areas, including an 85-foot-long acrylic window.

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New mixed-use development underway in downtown Auburn Hills

Excerpt

Recently, construction fencing went up along the perimeter of the property at the southwest corner of S. Squirrel and Auburn.  This fencing represents the first phases of construction for the new mixed-use, multifamily development “The Residences at Thirty Two 50”.

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Bowling, karaoke to join Great Lakes Crossing entertainment options

Excerpt: 

A new development slated for completion in 2017 will bring bowling, karaoke and billiards to shoppers at Great Lakes Crossing Outlets.

Round 1 Bowling and Amusements will join the Auburn Hills shopping center with a nearly 60,000 square-foot scheduled to open in fall 2017.

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The Conserva to open in Ferndale this Saturday

Excerpt: 

The Conserva, a new Ferndale-based restaurant offering an eight-item, rotating menu that features meats, seafood, pickled vegetables, fresh mustards, and aioli, will open on Dec. 10. 

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Korean automation software developer opens new offices in Wixom

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A new operation of SureSoft Technologies, Inc., a Seoul, Korea-based software automation testing tools company, has opened an office in Wixom.

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Thumbs up: $11.7 million in new private investment approved

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The City Council recently approved two new projects that have a combined investment of $11.7 million.

First, Basil Bacall received authorization to construct a 96-room, Hilton Garden Inn hotel.  The site of the new three-story, 67,740 square foot building will be located at 3900 Baldwin Road adjacent to Great Lakes Crossing Outlets, directly east of the TownePlace Suites hotel.

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Light Guide Systems moves to Wixom facility for augmented reality technology

Light Guide Systems, an augmented reality tool that is transforming manual assembly and manufacturing processes for companies worldwide, celebrated the expansion of its Metro Detroit footprint by building out a larger and more robust facility in Wixom. OPS Solutions founder, president and CEO Paul Ryznar made the announcement.

The new 10,000-square-foot facility, located at 48443 Alpha Drive, Suite 175 in Wixom, Michigan, will provide OPS Solutions’ leading team of engineers with a substantial and custom-built space to hone advanced features and demonstrate new manufacturing and assembly applications for Light Guide Systems. 

“Demand for our augmented reality technology has grown dramatically in the last several years and we are excited to expand operations in Southeast Michigan’s technology corridor,” Ryznar said. “While our global presence is increasing steadily, it is critical to be part of the manufacturing landscape in Detroit and we look forward to growing our partnerships with powerful local manufacturers to make factory floors smarter, safer and better with technology.”

Light Guide Systems Classic helps reduces errors and radically improve manufacturing and assembly processes by projecting a digital operating “canvas” directly onto virtually any work surface and providing audio and visual prompts, guidance, pacing and direction. Light Guide Systems Pro takes the tool to the next level by incorporating its proprietary software into the powerful yet compact Sprout Pro by HP PC platform to deliver a clean and compact package that is portable, flexible and affordable.

The new OPS Solutions facility is a welcome addition to the Wixom business community, according to Wixom Mayor Kevin W. Hinkley. 

“As an active business community with a strong history of manufacturing, we are thrilled to welcome OPS Solutions to Wixom,” Hinkley said. “The Light Guide Systems team and technology bring a unique, innovative and ultimately practical approach to manufacturing technology, which has the potential to improve American manufacturing and grow jobs in our community, across the region, and around the world.” 

The Wixom facility is now open and operational, employing a local staff of approximately 22. Guided tours of the all-new facility are available.

Light Guide Systems is currently available worldwide. Visit www.ops-solutions for more information.
 

Downtown wins state funding to pursue spot on national list

Excerpt

Downtown Oxford is finally going to get its shot at being listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the state is going to pay for it.

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Birmingham countertop supply consolidation co. continues expansion with Kansas City acquisition

Excerpt

As part of its plan to actively seek new opportunities in major metro areas across the United States, Clio Holdings, a Birmingham-based consolidator of regional countertop supply and fabrication businesses, has acquired Kansas City-based Top Master. Terms of the deal, which is the company’s third acquisition since launching this year, were not disclosed.

Read more.
 

Lake Norcentra Park successfully raises more than $100,000 for improvements

Improved fishing access. Bike parking and a bike repair station. Bench and hammock seating. All these features and many more are coming to Lake Norcentra Park in Rochester. The multiple improvements come as a result of a $51,201 crowdfunding campaign and a $50,000 grant.

The crowdfunding campaign was first announced this past September. It was part of the ongoing Public Spaces Community Places placemaking initiative, funded by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation and the Michigan State Housing Development Authority. Because the Lake Norcentra Park project was able to raise at least $50,000 through a crowdfunding campaign, MEDC and MSHDA will follow on their promise of a $50,000 matching grant. The Lake Norcentra Project finished its five week-long crowdfunding campaign $1,201 over its desired target, bringing the total money raised for the park to $101,201.

"Everyone who knows Lake Norcentra Park and looks forward to what it is becoming is so thankful to the people who donated over $50,000 to this campaign," BT Irwin, project manager of the Lake Norcentra Park project, says in a statement. "Every dollar is going straight into building or repairing something in the park that everyone in the community will be able to enjoy next spring."

The park, which is located at the intersection of the Clinton River and the Clinton River Trail, has been the focus of a series of placemaking efforts first announced in February 2016. Local officials have been working to improve access and the usability of the park on the Rochester College campus. Lake Norcentra Park is open and accessible to the public.

Additional improvements include lighting, fountains, concessions, a picnic garden, green and wooded space, interpretive signage, and gathering places for outdoor learning programs and social activities. A public art project, the Rochester Community Mural, will also be installed, the winning artist having been selected in July 2016.

Got a development news story to share? Email MJ Galbraith here or send him a tweet @mikegalbraith.
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