5 Tough Questions: Birmingham City Council Member Mark Nickita

Birmingham Commissioner Mark Nickita has a far from a provincial view of his community. Cofounder of the Detroit-based architecture and urban design firm Archive DS, he is invested in both the infamously struggling Detroit and the posh suburb he says has "arguably the strongest downtown in the state." 

We spoke to Nickita about some of the issues facing Metro Detroit — including his insistence that the region stick to that title. 

Why do you think Metro Detroiters should stop using the term "Southeast Michigan?"

We are, as a community in Birmingham, interested in marketing the region. If the metro of Detroit is negatively placed in the eyes of the world, on the front page of the New York Times, that has an impact in Birmingham. It's an issue of how do we present ourselves? And how do we see ourselves globally? 

There are a lot of people who refer to the area as Southeastern Michigan, and I really question why we would do that. It has no brand at all. No one outside of Michigan knows where that is or what that is. In the world we're in now, where everything revolves around identity and branding, and what connotations come from your name, for us to call ourselves Southeastern Michigan is just short of calling ourselves "Some Place in the Midwest." It has no allure and it has no substance. 

I'm a strong advocate of defining ourselves as Metro Detroit or Metropolitan Detroit or the Greater Detroit Area. I'm really hoping we recognize the importance of branding ourselves, and we, as the business community, and as individuals, really embrace the name of Metro Detroit because that's what holds water in the world.

There is a lot of demand for businesses to locate in Birmingham with many national stores downtown and also high demand for office space. Is that all good news, or do you have concern about high demand in Birmingham driving away local business owners? 

One of our biggest challenges is how do you maintain the character of the city for all of the sectors while not pushing one over the other. It's a good problem to have, when the interest in your community is terrific, but it also comes with the challenge of balance. 

We have a long history of having a mix of national retailers and local retailers or independents. That's been the nature of our retail sector for decades, actually. But I think that our principal shipping district…has supported a good mix, and that's our goal. Part of that is the idea of an independent and national presence. 

We think that nationals bring certain level of strength in certain areas. And they bring a certain level of credibility with certain shoppers. But we don't want that to be something that we see overrun the independents. 

According to the US Census, the rate of most minority and women-owned businesses in Birmingham is below Michigan's average, and most at numbers too low for the census to even count. Does this reflect an issue with diversity in business ownership in Birmingham? 

As far as independents go, it's something we have little control over. What we have is a system that is very willing to work with businesses that come in. We're able to sit down with them and figure out ways to make them work. We do a pretty thorough job of addressing potential retailers' concerns and interests. We've really stepped that up over the years to have that dialogue. We react to whoever comes to us and is interested in opening a business and has a ability to do that. We're going to do everything we can to help them. 

The main discussion is, is your community open to to fair principals and fair activities for people to to engage in your community? We have had no issue in being as open as we should be and need to be open at all levels for people to engage in our community. And we hope that people want to. There is actually a whole lot of diversity in the community in term of economic diversity and nationalities. People think that Birmingham is only for higher-level residential, but there is actually lower-level residential in the community as well.

Birmingham has been acknowledged as a fairly walkable area compared to much of Michigan and small cities in general, but you're also an Oakland county community, which is a region so closely associated with sprawl. How does this play out in terms of your place in the region and the community's own vision?

Part to being walkable is having walkable bones and having the infrastructure of your city be more dense, and more able to accommodate pedestrians and multimodes of transportation. What we've see in the communities that have been established for longer time are more walkable. In Oakland County, the communities along the Woodward corridor tend to be more walkable than the ones in the outer reaches that were developed much, much later. Birmingham is nearly 200 years old. 

In addition to that, we've embraced walkability wholeheartedly, and we've embraced diverse uses, diverse activities…we embrace all of those things in our commercial districts and our neighborhoods. We have that as a priority and we promote it in our planning and in our development. I think that's how we may differ. Some of it is things we've done in an aggressive mindset toward maintaining walkability, but some of it is just that, sometimes, as they say, you're lucky to born with the good genes.

What should Birmingham and the metro Detroit's role be in rallying around Detroit's revival?

We have to recognize what's driving the economy, and the economy is being driven by metropolitan areas. Metro Detroit is a very, very important piece in Michigan's success. We're seeing that from Lansing and we're seeing that from the region. 

I don't know if there is anything particular thing that any community is doing. I think it's just a matter of when the opportunities come — when the discussion of metropolitan issues, whether it's the water issues or supporting the DIA or the supporting the zoo those are all regional issues and regional assets that we all take advantage of and enjoy.

I don't think there is anything one particular thing or system or program. I think more and more collaboration around working as a unit is one thing that's come about in discussions I've had. When these opportunities come about, it's important that the individual communities, including Birmingham, think in in terms of this is important for us as a community because we have to contribute to the whole region. If the region isn't doing well, it has an impact on Birmingham.

Natalie Burg is a freelance writer, development news editor for Concentrate and IMG project editor.
All Photos by David Lewinski Photography

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