3 downtown placemaking projects recognized for improving their communities

As Michigan approaches its second year of a pandemic that has prompted many to avoid public spaces, the importance of placemaking has come front and center in downtown areas across the state as communities return to something a little closer to “normal” this fall.

To celebrate the efforts of downtown organizations across Michigan working to create a revitalized sense of place for locals and visitors alike, the Michigan Downtown Association (MDA) recently honored several of its members’ notable projects emphasizing the importance of placemaking — one of eight categories at the 2021 MDA Annual Awards, held on Nov. 4 at the Police Athletic League in Detroit. (Editor’s note: Issue Media Group, Model D’s parent company, was a sponsor of the event.)

The MDA Awards highlight the important work downtown organizations do to create economic development, placemaking projects and promotions,” says Dana Walker, MDA director. “A strong downtown organization creates opportunities for small businesses to grow and places for community members to gather and enjoy. The two practices go hand-in-hand, building off each other to create a ripple effect for the local economy.”

Model D checked in with the nominees for this year’s MDA Best Placemaking Project Award to find out what their initiatives are all about — and how Michiganders are responding to their efforts.

Making waves with art in public spaces

Originally launched in 2019, the Fresh Waves: Downtown Alpena Mural Project is part of an ongoing effort to breathe fresh life into Alpena’s downtown public spaces through art.

“The DDA have always wanted to invest more in public art in our downtown,” says Anne Gentry, executive director of the Alpena Downtown Development Authority (ADDA). “In 2019, an artist who grew up in Alpena and works professionally out in Colorado as a mural artist approached us and said, ‘Hey, I really think we could branch out and do some really cool artwork in downtown [Alpena]. He said he was looking for some type of partner organizations to help get the ball rolling, and it was suggested that he reached out to us at the DDA.”

That artist, Aaron Golbeck, ended up painting the program’s first mural that summer on the wall of a local business in collaboration with Denver-based artist Chad Bolsinger. The mural was so well-received that the project continued the following year, quickly becoming a multi-year project that extended into 2021, providing stipends to artists and covering the costs of materials while revitalizing Alpena’s downtown area.

This past summer, the project went in a new direction. Instead of commissioning massive murals that often require extensive experience and logistics, the ADDA commissioned several smaller pieces, most of them from local artists, creating a new opportunity for area creatives to gain visibility.

“This summer was our third year of the project, and we had these freestanding structures made and also allowed any artists to apply, and had eight artists participate and do different murals,” Gentry says. “Each year, it's taken a little bit of a different form. But really, the goal of it that's been the same from the start, is to introduce new, vibrant and unique artwork to our downtown area.”

That goal paid off last week when the initiative tied for Best Placemaking Project in this year’s MDA Annual Awards.

“It is such an honor to receive an MDA Annual Award for Best Placemaking Project. We are so proud of our Fresh Waves project and the impact the murals have had in our community, and it’s amazing to receive statewide recognition for our project by the MDA,” Gentry says. “I hope it inspires others to come visit the murals or pursue transformative public art projects in their own communities.”

Photo: Supplied/Richard Lim Photography

Creating whimsical moments

About an hour and a half drive from Alpena by car, Howell Summit Gardens also captured the attention of MDA judges this year, with the project tying for Best Placemaking Project in the annual awards ceremony.

Inspired by a desire to redevelop neglected spaces in downtown Howell including a crumbling parking lot and long-shuttered bank with an unused outdoor area, planning for the project began several years ago. Completed last October, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the whimsical outdoor park now doubles as a colorful community gathering place and outdoor event space.

“It brought the community together during a time where everybody was really isolated,” says Kate Litwin, executive director of the Howell Downtown Development Authority and COO of Howell Main Street, a local nonprofit organization. “It was just a bright spot — we had something fun during a really crappy year.”

The outdoor public space, located one block from downtown Howell, features hand-fabricated metal archways, whimsical flora, ping-pong, and chess tables, corn hole, a labyrinth, “peace poles” and a colored pencil fence, a gnome forest, and a stage for live performances.

Photo: Supplied/Richard Lim Photography

Litwin says the project’s award is “for the entire community,” noting the efforts made by partners Howell Main Street/DDA, the City of Howell, Kaboom!, Thai Summit America, and others, alongside local businesses like Aberrant Ales, a local brewery whose staff built the labyrinth, and Evergreen Outdoor, which donated whimsical trees and plants to elevate the project’s atmosphere. Local artists including Sara Hemmeke of Sara Hemmeke Art & Design, Kelly Beacome of Center Street Studios, James Roth of Hell Creek Forge, Kathryn Hall, Geof Greeneisen, Annette Moeller, Jeff Humphries, and Sharon Fisher also contributed to the project.

“Howell Summit Gardens is a true testament to the power of community, and winning Best Placemaking Project is a huge honor for Howell. I hope that everyone who had a role in this project feels a huge sense of accomplishment knowing they helped create an award-winning gem,” Litwin says. “It’s amazing what can be accomplished with a creative vision and a great group of people working together to bring it to life.”

Redesigning the downtown experience

A little closer to Detroit, Oak Park’s Nine Mile Redesign project was also nominated for a Placemaking award this year.

Bringing the elements of a traditional downtown to an area that lacks a formal downtown, the City of Oak Park’s largely grant-funded Nine Mile Redesign project aimed to make the corridor more walkable and bicycle-friendly, while generating more interest from businesses and offering new recreational amenities to residents — something city manager Erik Tungate says helped “improve the quality of life” for local residents.

“So much of what we’re doing recognizes that people want quality of life amenities and a lot of recreation amenities in their neighborhood to complement their lifestyle,” Tungate says.

While the project is still underway, some of the amenities recently added to the neighborhood as part of the redesign include pocket parks, a bike trail, additional angled parking for visitors and customers of local businesses, and a linear park with playground equipment that’s expected to open to the public next spring.

Tungate says the city is honored to have been nominated for an MDA Annual Award this year.

“We’re a city that, for quite some time, was really kind of off the radar in the metropolitan area,” Tungate says. “And so for us, it's just really nice to get some recognition for our community and for our residents and business owners.”

As far as the Nine Mike Redesign project, Tungate says Oak Park is just getting started.

“We’re very excited about the future of our city. There’s a lot more to come — that’s for sure,” Tungate says.
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