Blog: Scott Clein

Scott Clein is an Associate with civil engineering firm Giffels-Webster Engineers where he manages the firms’ Detroit office. A graduate of both U-M and WSU, Scott has spent much of the last 14 years working to improve the region’s physical environment. He'll be writing about the redevelopment of Metro Detroit.

Post No. 3

In preparing to write the blogs that you’ve hopefully enjoyed over the last few days I reread some of the pages from Metromode’s archives. One person’s thoughts in particular caught my eye and got me thinking about how we tend to view development in southeast Michigan. 

Richard Murphy wrote in July discussing the state of land planning in the region. "We want dense urban neighborhoods and pedestrian friendly, fine-grained downtowns where lots of different things are happening," he wrote.   

This leads me to one of my biggest beefs with the general development climate today, that being the mostly horrific collection of local zoning ordinances governing the development (and redevelopment) of property. Most current zoning ordinances still appear to be cut for the same 1970’s mindset I referenced talking about transportation planning.   

Look at most zoning ordinances today and what do you see?  You see the industrial zone, the business zone, the low density residential zone, the high density residential zone, the commercial zone, etc. No wonder we’ve sprawled away from our established communities at such a rate. We were forced to get in our cars and drive around town to shop or go to work anyway, so we decided to buy some inexpensive farmland and live in the country. 

Even if we live in older, denser suburbs we still need our cars just to make it through the acres of parking lots developers are being forced to build.  To be fair, some retail developers live by the theory that more parking is better (sound familiar), but most don’t want the added expense if they feel the spaces are redundant. Most zoning ordinances appear to base parking requirements on the volume anticipated on the day after Thanksgiving, which mirrors the over capacity paradigm that governs our roadways.   

There is a solution to this problem, and some communities with vision are working to nurture it by approving mixed-use developments with lower parking requirements. Mixed-use developments blur land use distinctions and place different densities of residential along side office, retail and commercial uses.  Shared parking agreements mean less square footage of pavement and all of the environmental benefits that follow. 

The result is an eclectic mix that cedes control back to the individual, who can pick and choose from any number of options (usually all within walking distance).  In that vein think of our urban cores, when properly planned, as super-sized mixed-use developments.  

In short, we need to promote economic development in all forms, especially if we’re going to create the diverse environment more and more people appear to desire. This starts with throwing out the old land planning playbook and looking at our communities holistically. Those that work to inspire creativity will succeed while those that don’t will certainly fail. We need to decide which group we want to be apart of before it’s too late.