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."

Mark Miller. Photo by Doug Coombe.


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.

Mark Nickita. Photo by Doug Coombe.

"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.

Bob Gibbs. Photo by Doug Coombe.

"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.

Rochelle Freeman. Photo by Doug Coombe.

"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.
 
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