Manuela Powidayko has only been Mt. Pleasant’s city planner since October, but it’s clear she has hit the ground running.
“I usually spend my first hour in the morning just going through emails and answering phone calls or voicemails,” she says when asked about a typical day in her office. “As the zoning administrator for the City of Mt. Pleasant, I have to be able to explain the zoning rules to anyone.”
In addition to answering questions and preparing for monthly Planning Commission meetings, Powidayko has also been collaborating on new projects with others in city government. For example, just a couple of months into her new role, Mt. Pleasant’s City Commission approved becoming a part of Michigan’s PILOT policy program.
“This is basically a policy that the state government created for municipalities to adopt if they're interested, that allows for affordable housing projects to have lower property taxes that they have to pay if they build units that are affordable to lower-income residents,” she says.
Powidayko says housing availability in the area is an issue that definitely hits close to home.
“I myself went through a lot of hustle to find housing in Mt. Pleasant,” she explains, referencing the difficulty she experienced in finding an apartment she could purchase rather than rent.
“I think that the type of buildings that you can find here is not diverse enough. So, there's a little bit of an issue on the types of housing that people have access to, but also the amount that one may be able to pay either for rent or if you want to be a homeowner.”
Powidayko initially moved to Mt. Pleasant less than two years ago when her husband took a job in Central Michigan University’s School of Music. For a while, she continued to work remotely for her job in New York City’s Department of City Planning. But as time went on, she says she discovered what makes life in Mt. Pleasant so unique.
“I think my first good impressions of the city were (the) very welcoming people that really made me decide to stay. We just felt very welcome, and I think probably the most welcome that we ever felt in the United States,” she says.
Powidayko also immediately took notice of Mt. Pleasant’s downtown area.
“I think downtown was a space in the city that as a planner made me also want to stay. I just love that character of buildings close to each other, the restaurants with the outdoor seating. I think summertime can be very exciting. And how that all connects with the park system here, that is one of the best that I've ever seen. And I would never expect a city of this size to have such a great network of parks.”
Powidayko grew up in Londrina (a city roughly the size of Boston) in Brazil’s State of Parana. She initially went to school to become an architect.
“I got to know what urban planning is in my undergrad in my first class. And I really just fell in love with it as soon as I heard about it because I think an architect is working with a single client to hopefully make their dreams come true. So, when I learned that a planner is basically that but in a large scale—you're basically trying to improve cities so they are better places to live—I just thought that that was like architecture on steroids!” she says with a laugh.
Powidayko went on to complete her master’s degree at Columbia University in New York before landing in the city’s Department of City Planning. Today, her office in Mt. Pleasant’s downtown City Hall strikes a contrast to working in NYC.
“I think this is the quickest that I've ever seen things getting done!” she says. “One perk of it is because we are under City Hall and it's one building, and I have all departments that I have to work with right here on this roof. And I can literally go and walk to (an) engineer, I can walk to the Building Safety Department, and just get issues solved.”
Aside from helping to bring the PILOT policy program to the area, Powidayko has been spending time working on a project called Zoning for Economic Opportunity in the city of Mt. Pleasant.
“I've been meeting with a lot of stakeholders around town to try to capture if there are any zoning barriers to development—so, anything in the zoning ordinance that's preventing a business to be extended. I'm just trying to capture that through those conversations,” she explains.
“Our plan is to release a summary document at some point in the first half of the year with the findings and get more community input about it. We can then provide a zoning ordinance and do amendments if necessary to just make Mt. Pleasant little bit more open to business in general.”
As far as her vision for Mt. Pleasant in the future, Powidayko says growth is key to keeping up with our changing world.
“We want more people, we want more jobs, we want more investment in cities so cities can just keep getting better and better,” she says. “The reason for it is, because if you grow, you have more tax money. You have more money to spend in public parks, you have more money to spend on streets, more money to upkeep with the infrastructure.”
“Our world is always changing,” she continues. “We have different technologies, we have different types of cars, different types of vehicles. And so those pieces of infrastructure also need upgrades.”
“Cities are very dynamic,” Powidayko concludes. We may be very happy that we just completed a street. We have to move to the next. We cannot stop. And we don't even have time to just take a moment to be happy because there's always something else to be done.”
Powidayko and the Mt. Pleasant Planning Commission meet on the first Thursday of the month at Mt. Pleasant City Hall. Residents can learn more about the city’s master plan for the next 25 years by visiting mt-pleasant.org.