Scores of Farmington residents gathered at the Civic Theater on October 1 to hear a panel discussion called “A Design Discussion Downtown,” moderated by Farmington DDA President Todd Craft.
Speakers included Mayor Steve Schneemann; Farmington DDA Executive Director Kate Knight; Grissim Metz & Associates landscape architect (and the design lead on Farmington streetscape projects) Sue Grissim; and architect/urbanist Mark Nickita, who’s played a key role in downtown Birmingham’s re-design projects (among others).
Before the evening’s talk began, nighttime shots of downtown Farmington appeared on the Civic’s screen, and Schneemann reminded the crowd, “It didn’t always look like that. In the early aughts. MDOT was very proud of the highway that cut right through Farmington. They were able to get traffic, vehicles, and trucks, through Farmington at a high rate of speed. Traffic flowed really well. For people who wanted to have a downtown environment, … we had some real, real challenges.”
Because strip malls had previously been a popular commercial space option, Schneemann said, Farmington was at that time “half suburban, half quaint downtown,” with no street life and little outdoor dining. So a planning commission worked to develop a plan for a central gathering space – which became Sundquist Pavilion and Riley Park, now home to the Farmington Farmers Market, concerts, Swing Farmington dances and more – followed by a significant streetscape project on Grand River Ave.
“It didn’t just happen,” Schneemann emphasized. “It didn’t just accidentally become the place that it is today. There was a lot of very intentional hard work and thought by a lot people in the community, who care very much about this community, over many, many years, and that continues to this day.”
Future proposed projects in Farmington include a plan to connect Shiawassee Park with the downtown (by way of an accessible path), new housing, and a Farmington Road streetscape project – all of which were discussed during the design-focused talk.
For those who couldn’t attend, here are some key parts of the community discussion.
THE GRAND RIVER STREETSCAPE, TEN YEARS LATER
When asked how the Grand River Streetscape looks, ten years after its completion, Grissim noted that the landscaping looks rather worn and needs “a refresh,” which is normal. “But the streetlights, the furnishings, all of that, have held really well,” said Grissim.
“And those are the bones. As designers now, what we’re finding, working in many downtowns, is that to create those bones, you make them (from) quality materials, but you also provide flexibility, because who knows what tomorrow is bringing. So when you have different groups of different sizes, different needs, those spaces – you want to make them comfortable for all different types of use, but not too nailed down. … And the other part is all about maintenance. When we’re working on towns, you really want to make sure what we design, you can maintain it. That’s the key. and that’s come across really well here. We’re finding more and more in today’s time, everybody wants low maintenance. There’s always maintenance, but maintenance that’s clear, so whoever’s in charge of the maintenance, it’s simple, and not going to undermine the overall design of your town.”
THE CASE FOR LARGE-SCALE CITY PROJECTS
Nickita talked about his experience with the multi-phase downtown renovation (still in-progress) in downtown Birmingham and noted, “I think with any large infrastructure project – frankly with any large project of any sort – you’re going to get a certain number of people who are uncomfortable with the change. … Of course, businesses are really concerned about their ability to weather the storm. So there’s always some level of concern. But I think that you have to recognize that these things – if you don’t deal with the changes, for one, you can’t advance the city in a manner that’s appropriate for the current-day environment, which is, in our opinion, the importance of adding and emphasizing the pedestrianization of the city and carrying it to another level.
“And that’s very important for safety, for comfort level, and ultimately for the live, work, and play environment that we’re trying to enhance. But I think that you also have to recognize that if you don’t deal with these things, ultimately, you’re going to deal with them by hook or by crook. You’ll be forced to. In the middle of winter, there’s going to be a main break underground, a broken pipe, something like that. You’ll be ripping things up and patching things together, and that’s a big disruption as well. That starts to become quite costly.
“We were getting more and more of these things happening through the winter months, and it was inevitable that we had to do that. And I think it’s appropriate to take the tough pill and deal with it, and hopefully explain to as many naysayers, if you will, to the importance of it. … The last thing I would say is, (be) on time and on budget. If you tell people it will be 120 days, don’t make it 140 days, because that’s a level of trust, and you’re asking everybody to put a lot on the line and trust you as a city and follow-through, and we took that very, very seriously. … We made it on time and on budget, and I think everybody respected and was comforted by that.”
THE FUTURE IS ACCESSIBLE AND VIBRANT PUBLIC SPACE
Nickita, who has traveled the world for research, discussed the increasing focus on, and demand for, public space, and called Detroit’s Campus Martius Park “one of the premiere public spaces in the country,” along with Capitol Park.
“A public space really is important, but what’s really important is what surrounds it. That perimeter is really critical – probably more critical with what you do with the space itself.”
When showing visitors from Malaysia around downtown Detroit, Nickita observed that “Hart Plaza is significantly less active than any of the other public spaces in downtown. Granted, it was built many years ago, and yes, it’s a little bit run down. But the real fundamental problem with Hart Plaza is that it’s not surrounded by anything. There’s nothing adjacent to it. And it’s far and difficult to get from where the people are to that space. … So you have this great public space with these great views, and great location, in the center of everything, at the absolute foot of Woodward Ave., and there’s nobody there. … You go three blocks north, and Campus Martius is teeming with people. And why is that? Because it’s adjacent to thousands and thousands of people in restaurants and cafes and all that, right across the street. So the adjacency of what we call the urban room, or the enclosure, is as important, or more important, than what you do with the space itself.”
RETAIL ISN’T DEAD. IT’S DOWNSIZING.
Grissim noted that many struggling retail centers are now adapting to house more entertainment-oriented tenants, because that’s what people are looking for. Nickita followed up, saying, “We went through the world of going to malls, … these unique places that came about in the late 50s and early 60s, … and we sort of got that out of our system, and now we’re looking for other things. … I think that we as a society, and even around the world, many places, especially in North America, really lost sight of the time-tested ideas of place, and the importance of where people live.”
After World War II, Nickita observed, we were building for car-oriented environments, while the rest of the world, with their much older cities, remained pedestrian-oriented.
“I think that what we’re finding is, we sort of had that a hundred years ago, when people lived in cities and took streetcars and shopped downtown, and we lost that. … I think it’s more of a correction, if you will, than it is a new trend that’s going to go away in 20 years or something.
I think we’re back on the track. We lost track, and we’re back on the track.” Schneemann added, “Authenticity is something that people are yearning for. … With what we’ve done here in Farmington over the last 15 years, we’ve brought back authenticity to our downtown.”
THE INTERNET WON’T KILL RETAIL, BUT OFFICE SPACE MIGHT
Expanding on the topic of retail, Knight said, “I think there’s this pervasive myth that retail is dead. … We haven’t even broken a sweat about replacing (Dress Barn). We’re sad that they’re going, of course, because they’re such a big part of the community. But … we’ve had tremendous interest in that location.”
Nickita then touted the recent rise of small, local, independent retail businesses, and discussed the conditions in which they thrive. “It’s really incredibly important that retail is on the street, that there’s some level of retail, and it’s not office space. … Office space at street level in downtowns kills the street. They’re closed on the weekends, they’re closed at night, and half the day, you don’t want to be looking at somebody typing on a computer. … So it’s a really big negative. … And when you see all the retailers closing, … it’s usually more of a chain. … It’s not that the internet is killing them. The internet is barely ten percent of every dollar spent. People don’t realize that. … The reality is, brick and mortar stores aren’t going anywhere, in my opinion. Across the world, I don’t see empty spaces all over the place. But I do see independent, small, lot of local and unique and interesting shops in the streets of Paris, the streets of Shanghai, the streets of Berlin, the streets of Luxembourg. … I think it’s a good thing.”
Schneemann referenced the mom-and-pop shop model of old, saying, “In some ways, we’re moving back in that direction.”
CONNECTING SHIAWASSEE PARK WITH DOWNTOWN
Schneemann discussed how the city is under contract to purchase the old Maxfield Training Center building. “It’s languished for many years, … and the city has taken a leadership role and is going to be able to do a public-private partnership with a developer, where a portion of it will be developed, with a great mix of higher density housing that we desperately need here in Farmington,” said Schneemann.
“But then also, it’s an opportunity for us to do something I’ve heard residents asking for since I got involved here nearly 20 years ago, and that’s to connect these two phenomenal amenities that we have that are side by side. Yet if you’re in one, you don’t know other one exists, and that’s Shiawassee Park and our downtown, and Riley Park. Right now, to get from one place to the other is incredibly difficult, unless you’re quite fit and willing to risk the stairs. … But imagine if that hillside is opened up, and there’s a beautiful gently curving path. Not a ramp. Just a gentle sloped sidewalk that eases its way through a series of gardens all the way down the hillside and across the river, and visually, you’ve opened up downtown now to Shiawassee Park. So if you’re in the park, and you’re playing baseball, all you have to do is turn and look, and you can see the path up to the ice cream shop, or your car where you just parked because we also need more parking in downtown Farmington. So there are a lot of opportunities with that project, and we’ll be looking at those for months to come as well.”
GETTING IT ALL DONE
Nickita addressed how cities move forward with improvement plans, even in the face of resistance. “If you can achieve a clear and logical and implementable vision … then the implementation of that is critical,” Nickita said.
“Which means the leadership has to be steadfast in implementing it. So you need to elect leaders that are backing it and want to implement it, and that’s really critical. … No question, there will people that are for it, and people that are against it. There’s going to be a mix. But if it’s a well-founded, well-thought-through and logical plan of action, then you stay on the path to implement it. And that’s really, really key.” Schneemann observed that although the economy is good now, and the city’s tax and TIF (tax increment financing) revenues are up, and both the DDA and the City Council have named the Farmington Road streetscape a top priority, it will still take tremendous will and effort to make the plan happen.
“We voted on it,” said Schneemann. “It passed three to two. So it was not a unanimous vote. With all the tailwinds, there’s still challenges that we face. … We’re actually right in the thick of it now. The plan is … the city’s going to pay half of the cost for the streetscape, which is expensive, and the DDA is going to pay half. … It’s a much bigger bite for the DDA to take than it is for the city to take. But I think what it represents is a good faith effort on the part of both of those groups to say, look, people have been asking for this. … Everybody wants it, it’s the top of everybody’s list, let’s get it done. Yes, it’s expensive. … You know what? If we would have done it nine years ago, when it was designed, it would have been half the cost. We didn’t do it nine years ago because it was too expensive then, and nine years from now, it’s not going to be less expensive. … But I’m encouraged just by seeing so many people here tonight who care about the downtown, and care about design in the downtown.”
And though, from the outside, change may appear to happen so slowly as to be nonexistent, Grissim said, “We work with several different downtowns and projects, and Farmington has been one of the communities we work with that’s gotten quite a few things done. … You’re in a really fortunate situation to be in this community.”