Urban By Design: Why Architecture Matters

How architecture shapes a city and how Metro Detroit can improve itself through architecture are two subjects that will be discussed in depth as Royal Oak celebrates Architecture Week and the 150th Anniversary of the American Institute of Architects this week. 

Frank Arvan, principal architect at FX Architecture, served as the leader of one of the charette groups exploring issues and communities in and around Detroit, Arvan's group proposed replacing a series of surface parking lots between downtown Royal Oak's bus station and its farmers market with a dense and vibrant urban corridor. He will present his group's case study at 4 p.m. Saturday at 308 Main North.

metromode contributor Jon Zemke sat down with Arvan in his home to get his thoughts on how the proposal, and architecture in general, can make Metro Detroit a thriving metropolis again.

Why should people in Metro Detroit care about the architecture in their communities?

Architecture throughout history has been kind of a telltale sign of the vitality of a community, and the quality of the architecture directly relates to the quality of a community in a lot of ways. The vitality and its interest in business relates directly to how much money flows through the community, and how much money flows through the community relates to the investment in buildings and environment. On top of that the quality of the life makes people healthy. I mean if you have a good environment, good sunlight, beautiful parks and trees, people tend to be happier. They tend to be more productive. Architecture week is a good opportunity to focus on what we have around us.

Do you think Royal Oak has become a trendsetter for urbanism in Metro Detroit?

You know, I think it's somewhat of a trendsetter. There are other communities which are also an important part of that, certainly Birmingham and Ann Arbor. Ferndale is up-and-coming when it comes to urbanism. Royal Oak is working hard to become a vital urban center or more of a vital urban center than it already is. There are a lot of good reasons for that. One is that it has a lot of really solid, 1920s building structure already. There were a lot of interesting, good buildings built in the 1920s here, and it was already a vital town. That's before the freeways came. When 696 was built Royal Oak started to revive because it is at the intersection of two major freeways in the Detroit area, 75 and 696. So it brought all of that traffic to Royal Oak. It's now at the kind of the center of transportation and it already had a good urban infrastructure in place already. Not to mention it's on the Woodward corridor.

Royal Oak is often regarded as having one of Metro Detroit's most vibrant downtowns. How much of a role does architecture play in creating that energy?

There are two parts to that. There is the architecture the way it looks like. Then there's the architecture just in terms of the density of it and the ability to bring more people to a particular location. Mixed-use, mixed income, high-density architecture brings people to a place. So the more people you living there and working there the more vital it is, the more people you have meeting each other, talking to each other on the streets. Just by pure density alone, which doesn't have anything to do with what it looks like, you get more vitality because you have more people bumping into each other and meeting each other on the street.  

What is the best thing Royal Oak, and the rest of Metro Detroit's cities for that matter, can do to improve their downtowns?

Well, mass transit for sure. If we have a viable, reasonable mass transit system that worked with a series of hubs that were terminated in downtowns, like Royal Oak, Birmingham, downtown Detroit and Hamtramck, then people would be coming to those downtowns to meet their transportation needs. By building those mass transit hubs you end up intensifying the amount of traffic flowing through town, and therefore development tends to cluster around these mass transit hubs. That is probably the most important thing to revitalize towns. 

From your point of view as an architect and as a downtown-area resident, what do you think downtown Royal Oak will look like in 10 or 20 years?

That's exactly what we were working on in the charette. What do I think it will look like? I don't know. It depends on the economy. It depends on how things go. If the economy is not doing well, people tend not to invest and things stay stagnant and don't evolve. But assuming the economy gets a little bit better and we end up bringing more creative people to the area, I can see it developing very similar to our proposal; where it is a much higher-use, denser community. For instance, right now if you go to downtown it seems pretty vibrant and dense. But if you go beyond Main Street and Washington in between those areas you'll find an incredible amount of land that is just parking lots. In any urban environment parking lots are death. They don't really contribute to the urban vitality at all other than the fact that people can park. What we really need is more parking in denser parking structures and all of those surface parking lots need to be developed as buildings for people to use and live in and so forth.

Your charette group explored a proposed connection from the current bus station to the Farmers Market. What conclusions did you reach?

Well, going back to the idea of the parking lots. If you take the walk from the farmers market to the bus station, you'll walk mostly through parking lots. Our conclusion was that all of those parking lots are first of all unsightly. They're not wonderful places to walk. They're not pedestrian friendly. And so it's necessary to find other places to park those cars. Parking structures should be on the periphery so people park and walk into town.

A lot of cities throughout Metro Detroit are trying replicate the success of downtown Royal Oak. What key lessons should they take away?

One of the important things is that every town can't do it. How many can there be? That's a good question, and I'm not sure what the answer is. An important lesson from Royal Oak is that downtowns have become places where people gather. They come for the restaurants. They come for some light shopping, not major shopping. They come for other forms of entertainment. In downtown Detroit they come for baseball games, football games and theater. Throughout the country in fact downtowns have become kind of a gathering place, which is more about entertainment that anything else.

Downtowns used to be about places where people work, and entertainment was part of that. But now downtowns are a little bit more about entertainment and that's how Royal Oak really got its foothold in becoming a vibrant place. A lot of restaurants moved in so a lot of people came and saw how nice it was to walk around. That seems to be the first step to revitalizing a town is creating a walkable environment that is full of good entertainment options. But that's only the first step. The next step is the step that Royal Oak is in now, bringing people in to live there. Now we have quite a few loft buildings and a lot of people are moving into downtown. That will propagate vitality and keep it stable, even if the restaurants can't grow anymore. 

The third step is to bring back that worker component. Even though Royal Oak does have some office space it's pretty lacking. The more of a mix you can have between residential, office, entertainment, retail and restaurants the better the community is going to be because it can weather problems. So what if people stop going out to eat. So what if the economy goes down. People still live there so at least it's still vital because of that.

Do you think the focus on improving downtowns is a fad or something we can expect to see for a while in Metro Detroit?

That's an interesting question. I guess there is some aspect to it that is faddish. People see it and say well they're doing it over there so we should do it over here. I guess that is what a fad is. A lot of things are like that. There are really good reasons why one person does it and then other people do it just because it seems like the thing to do. Some of it is a fad. But I think in the long run it's not a fad because if you look at the evolution of cities throughout history we know that they evolve from something that tends to be relatively sparse to something really dense. We're a young country, 300 years old. Compared to Europe we're just babies. So if you look at how cities have evolved in Europe I would say that we're on a similar trajectory, maybe even faster because things seem to be moving faster than they did in the past. As population increases we're going to have to find more ways to accommodate the population. As energy resources become fewer and fewer, or at least more difficult to reach, dense urbanism becomes the only logical solution.

Jon Zemke is a regular contributor to metromode. You can read his last article, Some Assembly Required, here.


Frank Arvan outside his home

All renderings of Royal Oak courtesy of Frank Arvan AIA, Mark Farlow AIA, Shanita Rutland, Johannes Potgieter, CarrieDavia, Kathi Brown, Matt Brown and Nathan Brantley.

Photographs © Dave Krieger

Dave Krieger is managing photographer of Model D and a major contributor to metromode