Cheap Ways To Revitalize Your Downtown

"Do more with less," is a catch phrase managers love to say and workers hate to hear. It's also one we're hearing ad nauseam in today's economy. And just as regular Joes and Janes are tightening their belts and getting creative with the monthly budget, so too must local officials accommodate revenue streams and tax rolls that are in free fall. It also means that expensive projects like streetscape redesigns and downtown marketing efforts must be shelved while DDA directors find more cost-effective ways to move their city centers forward.

With that mandatory austerity in mind, Metromode is highlighting a quintet of local initiatives that are helping increase downtown vibrancy in their respective communities. The best part of these ideas is that they are either free or can be done quite cheaply.

Wyandotte NEZ

Getting people to build anything these days is next to impossible, thanks to the shortage in financing and gun-shy creditors. Nevertheless, Wyandotte is laying the groundwork for a little downtown renovation boom.

City officials are working on giving the central business district a special Neighborhood Enterprise Zone (NEZ) designation. Normal property owners in Wyandotte have to pay 48 mills of taxes, but people in a NEZ only have to pay 17 mills. This newly proposed NEZ would let downtown business owners improve existing upper floors (second floor and above) without increasing their tax burden. Those who build new floors will have to pay just 17 mills on the new space.

This new policy, which could be implemented as soon as August, encourages a number of downtown building owners to turn vacant upper-floor space into new lofts. Gilbert "Gib" Rose, owner of Chelsea Menswear and Willow Tree Women's Fashions, plans to turn the vacant second-floor space above one of his businesses into the Lofts at Willow Tree.

"It's currently vacant and promises to be vacant for a long time unless we do something creative like this," Rose says.

The space had served as a salon for years before the owner moved into his own downtown building last year. Rose says there is little demand for second floor commercial space in small downtowns these days, but the opposite is true for residential.

Rose gives the example of a second-floor downtown apartment he owns in Wyandotte. He says that it has served as a residence for 35 years and has been quite popular the whole time.

"That apartment has never been vacant - for even a day," Rose says.

He believes the same will hold true for Willow Tree. Rose plans to turn the 3,800 square feet of old salon space into four apartments. He has hired a local architect, Tom Roberts, to design the apartments and hopes to begin work soon after the NEZ becomes a reality. City officials hope the new NEZ will bring more people downtown, help spread more money around local businesses, put more people to work, and spur more investment in downtown's historic structures without costing the city any money.

"There is a lot of interest in doing this sort of thing," Rose says.

Birmingham bistro license

Downtown Birmingham parking spaces aren't just for cars anymore. They are for patrons of local bars and restaurants, too, when it's warm enough.

The city recently rewrote its bistro license to encourage downtown establishments to offer more outdoor seating. The only problem is narrow sidewalks and parallel parking spaces often don't leave enough room for patrons, pedestrians and automobiles. So city officials permitted the option of eliminating parking spots to make room for patrons.

The new bistro license allows businesses to build a platform in the parking spaces in front of their storefront. These platforms provide space for more outdoor seating and for pedestrians to pass on the sidewalk. The city liberalized its liquor laws so servers can walk across the sidewalk to serve alcohol, and the restaurants or bars pay what it costs to park a car in that space during the time.

Dick O'Dow's took advantage of these new bistro licenses two years ago, building a small deck into the parking space in front of its small storefront. That provided room for another six tables with 24 seats, or an extra 10 percent of capacity for the popular restaurant/bar.

"We have 24 seats that are always busy that we wouldn't otherwise have," says Mitch Black, owner of Dick O'Dow's.

It also helps the downtown in a lot of ways that would make Jane Jacobs smile. The new policy excites the sidewalk and makes the area more inviting by aiming eyes on the street scene. It also allows the city and the local businesses to fatten their revenue streams in an economy where that isn't easily accomplished.

"It helps us in a lot of ways," Black says. "It gives us increased visibility. People walk by and it's more inviting."

Commuter Challenge

Ann Arbor doesn't just want to provide downtown denizens with the opportunity to get to and from the city's center in something other than a car. It wants to encourage them to actually do it.

The city started its getDowntown program a few years ago to provide more alternative ways to and from downtown. The idea is that by growing the number of people who walk, bike, or bus, the city is better able to maintain, or even increase, urban vibrancy without providing expensive parking facilities.

But extra bike hoops, Zipcars and free bus passes only go so far. Sometimes people need a little nudge or a good excuse to try out a new habit, like biking to work. That inspiration is being provided by getDowntown's recent Commuter Challenge.

The challenge recruits local businesses to get some of their employees to walk, bike or bus to work at least twice a month. Businesses score points for each sustainable commute an employee logs going to and from work.

This year, 140 organizations participated, up from 117 last year and 66 the year before. That means a little more than 1,800 people clocked in 20,391 sustainable commutes. Last year, 1,482 participants logged in 15,407 sustainable commutes, and the first year only 231 people took part, producing 9,407 sustainable commutes.

"A lot of this is finding the person at the organization and getting them excited about it," says Nancy Shore, executive director of getDowntown.

This year it cost getDowntown about $10,000 to pull off the commuter challenge. However, Shore maintains that any other local community can pull it off with similar results for much less.

"A lot of what we spend our money on is advertising," Shore says. "But a lot of the organization of it can be done for free."

Hamtramck bike racks

Not all street furniture is created equal. Some pieces are special, serving dual purposes. Hamtramck is making the most with its pieces.

The poster child for urban diversity attached small bike rack loops to its parking meters on Jos Campau between Holbrook and Caniff. The dual-use parking meter/bike hoops were added as part of a streetscape project in 2002, ensuring that there are as many parking spaces for bicycles as cars on the city's main drag - a must in a dense place.

"Hamtramck is an urban community that is very walkable and bikeable," says Darren Grow, director of the Hamtramck Downtown Development Authority. "A lot of our residents walk or bike."

He adds that the bike racks are heavily used during the warm-weather months. They also clear extra space on the sidewalk for pedestrians and street furniture, like benches, and trees. It also sends a message that non-motorized traffic is valued as highly as automobiles in the multi-ethnic enclave.

Although Hamtramck is the only Metro Detroit city to apply this practice, it's far from alone. Montreal puts similar-yet-smaller bike racks on its parking meter stakes. The Canadian megacity does this while still utilizing the new solar-powered electronic parking meters, which are similar to the ones being installed in downtown Ann Arbor. No word yet on whether Treetown will adopt the innovation.

Los Angeles is also converting its old parking meters to be more bike friendly. There is also a nationwide movement to preserve parking meters as bike racks in progressive metro areas like Philadelphia, Chicago and San Francisco.

Open Wi-Fi

Few things make people with a laptop or smart phone as happy as a viable Internet connection. The faster and freer the better. Ypsilanti is providing this sort of service in its downtown and Depot Town business districts, gratis, thanks to Wireless Ypsi.

The initiative, which is run more like a non-profit than a business, does this with
Meraki technology. The Google-funded start up uses off-white transmitters that look like a child's walkie talkie to connect Internet hot spots at local businesses, institutions, and homes. The transmitters use the extra bandwidth from the hot spots to create a mesh-like net of Wi-Fi coverage. Patrons can log onto it for free and surf away at any time.

"It’s brilliant. I love it," says Elizabeth Parkinson, vice president for marketing and communications at Ann Arbor SPARK. "It's a very smart way to provide that service."

She loves it so much that she logs onto it when she is at SPARK's new business incubator in downtown Ypsilanti, even though it has a T1 connection. A number of other fledgling start-ups at the incubator take advantage of it on a daily basis.

"It's very convenient to pick up and move on from meeting to meeting," says Barbara O'Connell, partner with, a new tenant at Ann Arbor SPARK's East Incubator.

Wireless Ypsi started with just a few blocks of downtown Ypsilanti early last year after local activists Steve Pierce and Brian Robb decided to give it a go over a beer and a burger. Today it covers all of downtown, Depot Town, some of the city's major parks, and parts of its neighborhoods.

It also covers parts of Ann Arbor, Whitmore Lake, Superior Township, Dearborn, and Trenton, and is spreading north into Oakland County with a testing site planned for Clawson. Pierce is even talking about expanding as far as Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the Florida Keys.

- Jon Zemke is da man with the revitalization plan. He's also Metromode's and Concentrate's News Editor. His previous article was Necessary Entrepreneurs.
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