Michigan's highway: The future of Michigan Avenue, our state's most important road

Here in Michigan, the nearly 2,500-mile highway US-12 is known simply as Michigan Avenue. 

Since its initial construction in 1827, Michigan Avenue has arguably been the state's most important thoroughfare. It was the first official connector to Chicago. Cities and towns have been founded along its path. Today, businesses line both sides of the road in Detroit, Dearborn, Ypsilanti, and more. And exciting changes are in the works to modernize this centuries-old road. 

To better understand the road's importance, Concentrate will explore the past, present, and future of Michigan Avenue in a three-part series presented in conjunction with Metromode and Model D, our sister publications in the metro Detroit area and the city of Detroit.

Read part one on Michigan Avenue's past here, and part two on its present here.

When John O'Reilly was just 11 years old, he'd ride the bus along Michigan Avenue from his home in Dearborn to Tiger Stadium. He and his friends would watch the Detroit Tigers play a doubleheader, then ride back. "We'd get bottles and return them so we could put together $1 for the whole trip," says O'Reilly. 

Today, O'Reilly is Mayor John O'Reilly of Dearborn. And those days spent on Michigan Avenue in his youth have left a permanent impression of the road and its importance to the region. "Michigan Avenue has always been a hub of commercial activity," he says. "I just love this road. I never take the freeway if I'm going to a stop along Michigan Avenue."

While many details of O'Reilly's story are surprising by today's standards—11-year-olds taking the bus unsupervised, a bus and baseball ticket costing the same amount—future residents will undoubtedly be surprised by the way we use Michigan Avenue today. 

That's because massive changes are coming in development, infrastructure, and the very means of transit. And these visions are being developed by people working right here, along Michigan Avenue. 

Near future: major development projects

O'Reilly is especially excited about the future of Michigan Avenue because of some promising developments in his city. 

Last year, Ford Land, the real estate management arm of the Ford Motor Company, made a massive commitment to development in Dearborn. In April, they unveiled their 10-year plan to renovate their research and development campus at an estimated cost of $1.2 billion. In addition to constructing more sustainable, work-friendly buildings, the plan will also double the number of employees who work there to 24,000. 

And if that weren't enough, Ford Land also purchased buildings and parcels in Dearborn's west downtown. The historic Wagner Hotel will be renovated and two new buildings constructed to create Wagner Place, a mixed-use district of first-floor retail and upper-floor office space for 600 Ford employees. The whole development will cost an estimated $60 million. 

Rendering of Wagner Place

Beyond the infusion of new employees to the area, the plan calls for a common space with patio seating, a park, promenades between buildings that connect Michigan Avenue to West Village Drive, and streetscape improvements. All these changes will greatly improve the district's walkability. 

"We're hoping to continue the trend in Dearborn of good, walkable downtowns," says Rob Cory, director of local real estate services for Ford Land.

O'Reilly is completely on board with Ford's approach, and his city is pitching in with the construction of a $20 million parking deck with funding help from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. "Ford is now a mobility company, not just an auto company," says O'Reilly. "And going forward, they need to recruit a whole different pool of talent that's not industry specific."

Distant future: infrastructure and transit

Future development isn't restricted to Dearborn, of course. One project in Ypsilanti will not only bring economic activity to the area, but has the potential to change the way people use Michigan Avenue and roads everywhere. 

Construction will start in May on the American Center for Mobility (ACM), an autonomous vehicle test facility located just off Michigan Avenue at Willow Run, a manufacturing complex and airport used to make bombers during World War II. The project is a joint venture between a number of major state entities—the University of Michigan, Michigan Department of Transportation, Michigan Economic Development Corporation, Ann Arbor SPARK—and will cost between $80 million and $100 million. 

The capacity of the complex is immense—the 500-acre site is considerably bigger than the nearby, 32-acre Mcity, which serves a similar purpose. This will allow engineers to replicate a multitude of driving conditions in the life of an autonomous vehicle. It also has easy access to nearby freeways, Detroit Metropolitan Airport, and even Michigan Avenue—part of US-12 will be rerouted to recreate a freeway onramp. 
Paul Krutko, president and CEO of Ann Arbor SPARK
Because of all this access, there might not be a better site in America for a testing facility of this kind. "This is a one-of-a kind facility," says Paul Krutko, ACM board member and the president and CEO of the economic development corporation Ann Arbor SPARK. "Industries will be able to collaborate with each other and with the government, whether it's on cyber security, wireless communication, sensor tech, and all kinds of important technologies."

A number of major companies will use the site, like automobile companies to test cars; AT&T to test wireless, inter-vehicle communication technology; and other equipment manufacturers, suppliers, and tech companies.

ACM's ultimate goal is changing the way we drive, and ensuring Michigan is on the forefront of this cutting-edge technology. Krutko talks about eliminating the need for parking garages in cities and improving efficiency on the road as communicating cars reduce traffic jams. 

Michigan Avenue will be directly enhanced by ACM as well. "This will create on US-12, in both directions, new development opportunities," says Krutko. "We're going to see companies responsive to this facility that will result in a lot of change."

Theoretical future: the use of roads

Now imagine a Michigan Avenue devoid of cars, with thousands of pedestrians walking down the middle of the 120-foot road between street vendors and interactive art shows. 

Actually, you don't have to imagine it. On two separate days last fall during an event called Open Streets Detroit, the city shut down several miles of Michigan Avenue and Vernor Highway to vehicular traffic. The event encouraged attendees to reimagine uses of our roads and encourage the creation of pedestrian zones. 

"Those 10,000 people that came to the street those days experienced Southwest Detroit in a totally different way," says Chad Rochkind, founder of Human Scale Studio, a consultancy that helped organize Open Streets. "Those are people you can enlist as voices for advocacy."

Chad Rochkind, founder of Human Scale Studio

Much of Rochkind's work is about demonstrating the possibilities of streets. Last April, Human Scale Studio, in concert with the Michigan Department of Transportation and Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan, showcased a redesign for Michigan Avenue with greater variety of usage. The reimagined road had dedicated center lanes for bus rapid transit, protected bike lanes, and wider sidewalks that could accommodate cafe seating. 

"Streets are our most abundant public lands and we give them over to only one function," says Rochkind. "Most people think they're only for cars, but cars are a new phenomenon in the urban landscape. I'm not saying cars don't have a place in cities, we just need to rebalance the scales."

Rochkind offers a number of reasons why we need to rethink the use of streets in our cities, from practical advantages like increasing the number of seats in restaurants and adding more room for bus stops to creating a more robust public life by raising the chances of "spontaneous interaction."

He also has a plan to change public opinion on this issue. In the summer of 2015, Rochkind organized the construction of a "parklet" outside Astro Coffee alongside Michigan Avenue in Corktown. The 208-square-foot public space contained benches and potted plants to create a barrier from street parking. While modest in scope, it was used enthusiastically by patrons of the coffee shop until it was shut down a week later by MDOT. 

This relatively small gesture is part of an effort to prime residents for changes in street infrastructure. Rochkind says there was almost no backlash and little confusion over the installation of protected bike lanes along Michigan Avenue last year thanks to community outreach and initiatives like the parklet. 

Because of all the positive response Rochkind and the city have received, this theoretical future is much more likely to be the future. "The timing has never been better for rethinking streets in the city," says Rochkind, citing among other signs the fact that Janette Sadik-Khan, former commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation who helped push protected bike lanes and a bike share program there, is advising the city of Detroit right now. 

"I thought it would take several years to get to where we got in six months. But high-level leaders have started to understand the importance of making these changes."

Aaron Mondry is the managing editor of Model D and a Detroit-based freelance writer. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter @AaronMondry.
All photos by Nick Hagen.
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