Is Your Community Redevelopment Ready?

When the Michigan Suburbs Alliance first launched its Redevelopment Ready Communities program in 2003, Melanie Piana says it was a crucial time for Detroit's suburbs to consider new ways to grow.
"A lot of cities in the '90s no longer had land to grow outward," says Piana, deputy director of the MSA. "So the only way they could grow was through redevelopment."
Ten years and one economic crisis later, Piana says the RRC program, which certifies cities as "redevelopment ready" by helping them create best practices for redeveloping existing assets, has only become more vital. It's also become much wider-reaching; last year, the program changed hands from the metro-Detroit-oriented MSA to the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, which now offers the program statewide
"We had always had visions of going to a statewide program, but we lacked the reach that a statewide organization has," Piana says.
The MEDC is currently in the process of re-certifying seven communities already certified by RRC under MSA (Roseville, Southfield, Eastpointe, Ferndale, River Rouge, Lincoln Park, and Ypsilanti). It's also selected eight new cities, including Lathrup Village and Novi, for its certification process. Twenty-eight additional respondents to the MEDC's initial call for program applicants, from Dundee to Midland, will also be receiving assistance in developing best practices for redevelopment.
It's a remarkable expansion from the original RRC pilot program, which began in 2005 with just five metro-Detroit communities: Eastpointe, River Rouge, Southfield, Hazel Park, and Ypsilanti. Piana came aboard in 2004, helping to secure grant funding and gathering an advisory committee of developers, land use experts, and city officials to draw up the program's standards of certification. The six basic standards have changed slightly with the transition to MEDC oversight, but Piana says the fifth standard, "Redevelopment Ready Sites," has remained the program's "cornerstone."
"It's about having available commercial and industrial property ready to go, so that investors have an easier time of getting that property through the city's system," Piana says. "It's really about how the communities identify, envision, and market the priority redevelopment sites."
Other standards address streamlining red tape in the zoning and development review processes, offering continuing education for public officials, and adopting a formal redevelopment plan. Among the approximately 25 cities the MSA worked with on RRC, Piana says the program has encountered little resistance because it focuses on re-envisioning existing development instead of developing greenfields. And, she says, communities' interest in redevelopment are getting stronger.
"A decade ago it was about 'stop sprawl,'" she says. "Now it's, 'Hey, the market has changed. We need to capitalize on these opportunities.' The housing and real estate crash really affected development in communities, because there wasn't any. I think we're now starting to see a different framework in thinking about investing in our older spaces."
Piana says that for Detroit's suburbs, part of that framework involves thinking as a region, even though lack of infrastructure may make that difficult.
"Our common challenge is that we're not knitted together with a strong regional transit system," she says. "We have trouble connecting people to places in our region. This is not one city having one thing over another to be successful, but looking at what we can do to attract development opportunities."
Jennifer Rigterink, who now oversees RRC for the MEDC, also notes regionalism as the key element for metro Detroit to make itself more redevelopment-ready.
"It's about starting to know that maybe you don't land the project, but if it lands in your region or a neighboring community, you're still going to benefit off of it," Rigterink says. "We need communities to start thinking that way."
As the RRC baton passes from the MSA to MEDC, Rigterink speaks highly of the program MSA has built and of the assistance she's received from Piana, who's been contracted by the MEDC to guide the transition.
"At the beginning I think they really engaged a lot of stakeholders," Rigterink says. "And Melanie's a great resource, history-wise, when it comes to working with a community."
As she prepares to introduce RRC statewide, and to re-introduce it in metro Detroit, Rigterink says that in these financially troubling times for local governments, becoming redevelopment ready can be just as lucrative as any cash injection.
"It's really helping communities establish that foundation, or that base, for redevelopment to occur," Rigterink says. "We're not giving them a grant so they can get a project done. We're helping them so that when they do have a project to get done, there'll be less development and approval time, and it'll be a streamlined process."

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Metromode and Concentrate.
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