LTU students re-imagine a struggling suburban shopping center

A project by students at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield has focused on how to revive one struggling corner of a major intersection at 8 Mile and Grand River, just one of many examples of shopping centers that have gone dark as population and business has shifted to outlying suburbs. The intersection is a meeting point of Detroit, Livonia, Farmington Hills and Southfield.

In conceptualizing how the corner would be best re-used, the students working under the direction of Ralph Nunez and Mark Nickita decided to connect a new development to Botsford Hospital in Farmington Hills. They also decided to make the river that runs west of the property one focal point, rather than a hidden, missed opportunity.

“The shopping center there has basically gone dark,” except for one restaurant, the Nibble Nook, Nunez says.

Along with Nickita, who is also mayor of Birmingham and an architect and urban planner, Nunez took suggestions for sites to redevelop from the 8 Mile Boulevard Association, a nonprofit focused on revitalizing the mile road that splits Detroit from the suburbs. The university and the association have worked together in the past, bringing students real-life situations to learn from and giving the community a potential real-world revitalization.

Ideally, such projects could be put into practice, eliminating the ramp-up time and expenses of pre-planning for professional redevelopment. James R. Smith, corporate director of planning & business development for Botsford Health Care, was among the jurors who critiqued the final concepts designed by the 12-14 students.

The students, playing architects, city planners, market researchers and more, had to determine whether to demolish what’s there and start over, to completely renovate and work with the building now there or redevelop the property with a combo of demolition and renovation. They chose the last approach. They designed plans with consideration for pedestrian use, parking, amenities to attract workers from the hospital or nearby businesses, and more. They decided to dedicate a portion for senior housing and make the rest professional offices, retail, and physical therapy practices. In addition, they wanted to build on the work of nearby cities to make the river more of a useful attraction, Nunez says.

Tami Salisbury, executive director of 8 Mile Boulevard Association (8MBA), says the proposals, which included reconfiguring roads to join the property to the medical center, were impressive. Salisbury and Smith, from Botsford, were jurors on the proposals. 8MBA provided potential project locations for the students. The organization has also worked with other universities.

“We’re a nonprofit so the price is right,” she says. “And what’s nice is students come to us with a fresh perspective and new thinking.”

While development money is tight, she says, “the next step is to put our heads together so we can make the students’ vision a reality.”

Source: Ralph Nunez, adjunct professor, Lawrence Technological University, and Tami Salisbury, executive director, 8 Mile Boulevard Association
Writer: Kim North Shine