Blog: Mark Nickita

Mark Nickita is the cofounder of the award-winning multi-disciplinary design firm Archive Design Studio. A resident of Birmingham, Mark was selected by Crain's Detroit as one of its 40 under 40 business leaders, is the winner of several architectural & urban design awards and sits on the Birmingham Planning Board. Mark will be writing about Metro Detroit's need for livable, workable, and walkable urban neighborhoods.

Post 1 - Let's Remake Urban White Elephants

Throughout the Midwestern region, cities and urban areas are poised to have greater significance than they have in the recent past.  Community values are in demand, trends indicate that people want to live in urban, walkable areas, with parks and bike paths, public safety, good schools, and various other amenities.  Cities that can provide this type of environment will be better positioned to retain and grow residents and workers, and will be more viable and vibrant civic places than those who cannot provide these assets.   This comes at a time when municipalities are severely challenged by decreasing property values, increased vacancies, loss of population, higher fuel prices and the loss of revenue sharing from the state.  As many of us experience our personal lifestyles undergoing a transformation, our cities and towns will be required to transform as well – for better or worse.

When a municipality is struggling with declining revenue for whatever reason, there are three options available to pursue in order to maintain or increase the services that are provided to the community.  One option is to increase taxes, the second is to cut some aspect of its services.  Both of these options are obviously highly unpopular with residents and will likely result in some political fallout for the civic leadership.  The third option is to maintain or increase revenues.  This is easier said than done however, with careful planning and innovative strategies in place, there are logical and effective ways to make this happen.

A Citywide Efficiency Strategy - Filling In Development Versus Building Out

Often, municipalities, institutions, developers and land owners, overlook the potential and value of existing buildings and underutilized parcels.  This is particularly important at this time, due to the significant increase in vacant and partially leased building that dot our landscape, and the need to be efficient and uncover new revenue opportunities.  There is increasing interest in the intensification of existing communities that have an established infrastructure, plentiful resources and are well located.  This is especially true when the cost of a long-distance commute is becoming a factor in lifestyle decisions due to the increased price of gas.  Development teams are beginning to recognize the potential of repositioning existing buildings and parcels and their actual built-out value.  Additionally, mixed-use infill and adaptive re-use types of development will encourage a quality of life that is active twenty-four hours, seven days a week and provide aspects for living, working and playing collectively within the city.

The path to repositioning under-producing properties should be led by municipalities and the development community.  There is an apparent need for district rezoning in most of our cities.  Revising zoning so that it allows for more flexibility and a mix of uses, can lead to new and innovative users that can fill empty spaces.  Whether in a downtown, an industrial or manufacturing district, or a commercial corridor, large vacancies and abandonment have become common realities of the real estate in almost every American city.  Many of these areas have little hope of reestablishing their former uses and occupancies with the same kind of tenants. By repositioning these aging and under-producing districts, cities can guide new development that can transform outdated and inefficient structures into fresh and exciting places.  

This type of activity is already starting to occur and there are plenty of examples in Metro Detroit.  Along Detroit’s riverfront, there is the Elevator Building in Rivertown, a one-hundred-year-old manufacturing building that is now home to small, start-up incubator businesses focused on design and technology.  In Troy, an old commercial building now houses The Barkshire, a day-care for dogs. In Birmingham, an empty industrial building has been transformed into Goldfish Swim School for babies and kids; and in Northville, an out-dated concrete block structure has become the Tipping Point Theatre

The opportunities are great and the results are exciting contributions to the built environment.  But possibly more important is the fact that these tired old and empty structures have become active, revenue producing pieces of the urban landscape.  A plan for repositioning an out-dated district through alternative zoning, an overlay of existing zoning, or a plan encouraging mixed-use and flexible zoning, all can be transformative tools that can have an extensive impact on a city.  Let’s start to rethink our existing environments and reposition the Detroit region by using new ways of building.

Tomorrow: It's Detroit, Not Southeast Michigan