It’s the ultimate paradox of urban planning that “downtown” belongs to everyone and no one. Almost every city has a commercial district that is considered the heart of social and retail activity; a place where everyone goes to run errands, enjoy a meal, take a stroll, sit and watch people, and invariably take visitors from other towns. But the psychology of collective responsibility holds that no one resident is likely to feel obligated to personally care for a space that every resident uses. People take excellent care of their own properties and are prone to pitch in around their block or neighborhood, but for the most part they assume “downtown” is being looked after by “the city.”
The problem is that “the city,” or more accurately city leaders, have to spread their resources over an entire municipality, which encompasses not just commercial zones but residential areas, rights of ways, parks and public buildings. If the heart of your town is well manicured, well developed, safe and routinely host to free or low-cost events, there’s most likely another party at play: a Downtown Development Authority.
DDAs, as they’re called, were conceived nationwide to help downtowns grapple with the empty buildings, increased crime and shrinking tax bases resulting from the widespread suburbanization that began in the 1950s.
In 1975, the State of Michigan passed the Downtown Development Authority Act to authorize cities to create these public bodies, which use taxed collected through a Tax Increment Financing District. Put simply, DDAs capture some of the incremental portion of the tax levy on the assessed value of real and personal property located in the DDA District that is due to new construction. This means the money that comes from the downtown goes right back into it.
Phil Hansen, DDA/economic development director for the city of St. Louis, MI, is the head of the Michigan Downtown Association, which brings DDA directors and their counterparts in Principal Shopping Districts (PSDs) together four times a year for conferences in various Michigan cities. He estimates there are roughly 400 DDAs or PSDs in the state, each of which is working to maintain and strengthen core commercial districts.
“It’s important to have a specific organization working on just downtown issues and projects because of the importance of downtown in general,” Hansen says. “Think of any town you’ve been to, and the downtown is probably the first thing you think of.”
While all Michigan DDAs have a similar mission and formation under Michigan law, their priorities can be significantly different based on the location, size and industries of the town they serve. With its 60,000 residents, the Detroit suburb of Royal Oak is smaller and has different priorities than a larger downtown such as Ann Arbor. According to Royal Oak DDA Downtown Manager Stephanie McIntyre, Michigan’s 18th largest city is less concerned with transportation and more focused on infrastructure, beautification, and activities that draw visitors from the densely populated and culturally competitive cities nearby.
The city of Royal Oak formed its DDA in 1976 and has set about promoting growth and development downtown by improving and maintaining its infrastructure, marketing the area to consumers and businesses; and encouraging preservation. Its nine board members include City Manager Tom Hoover.
“Whether your town is established or being revitalized, the downtown area is a central point of activity,” Stephanie McIntyre, the DDA’s downtown manager. “It’s great to have an organization that focuses on maintaining the downtown area, which is so vital to so many people.”
The Royal Oak DDA gives considerable attention to the aesthetics of their city, says McIntyre. It has long pursued beautification projects involving brick pavers, hanging flower baskets, landscaping, benches and lampposts, while providing low-interest loans to help building owners improve facades. This sensitivity to aesthetics extends even to administrative and marketing efforts, she explains, where a comprehensive rebranding effort, complete with new logo, is nearly complete.
Given downtown Royal Oak’s role as a major west side shopping and dining center, the DDA is particularly watchful for opportunities to bring additional parking to the city. Says DDA Chairman Kevin Kalczynski, “Surface parking doesn’t really cut it, because it’s hard to put in a surface lot that’s large enough to handle the amount of parking necessary without damaging the things that make a downtown a downtown. We spend a lot of time dealing with how to make parking in our downtown” while maintaining close-set buildings and a walkable environment.
Kalczynski, a partner with the law firm Barris, Sott, Denn & Driker, said the DDA is close to procuring a lot on Main and 6th Street that will bring an additional 220 parking spots to visitors. Meanwhile, it’s outfitting the existing three parking structures downtown with surveillance cameras to help protect restaurant and other service workers walking to their cars with cash late at night.
Living space downtown is key, McIntyre says, adding that the DDA helped bring three buildings to the downtown area during the “loft craze” five years ago. More and more communities are adopting the idea of the 24-hour downtown, one where locals live, work and play in a walkable environment. The result has been a slew of redevelopment projects and ambitious residential projects like The Fifth, an 18 story condominium that has attracted both local and international residents.
But of paramount importance are Royal Oak’s social and community-based events. McIntyre points to a host of events the DDA has planned for the fall. Whether it’s partnering with Detroit Fashion Week to bring a fashion runway show to Fourth Street (Sept. 26-27) or sponsoring an Oktoberfest celebration (Oct. 11), or planning a Holiday Magic Parade in November, these events help to build Royal Oak’s identity as community while drawing people to its distinct core.
Kalczynski says Royal Oak’s proximity to other urban centers is both a boon and a challenge. The city is fortunate, he says, to have millions of people living within a half hour of it. “It’s in the middle of everything as far as metro Detroit is considered, and we have a great mix of merchants downtown that’s attractive and draws people to the area.” At the same time, he said, the DDA must be constantly mindful that Royal Oak competes with other downtowns.
As he points out, “people have limited money for shopping and entertainment.”
Lucy Ament is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Metromode living in Grosse Pointe. Her last article for Metromode was An Appetite For Atmosphere.
Fifth & William parking lot is paved with a porous surface; allows stormwater to percolate from the surface, into the earth
Royal Oak Music Theater
New Royal Oak logo on Center St. garage