Michigan's older suburbs are getting smarter about redevelopment with a program that hones in on attracting quality projects and easing the process. Here's how.
When it comes to development, local governments have not always gotten it right. Lack of a clear vision, inconsistent or absent development standards, and a reactive approach have sometimes hindered projects or resulted in development of a lesser quality than a community might have hoped for.
But many cities in Metro Detroit have been making a concerted effort to change that. One way is by enrolling in Michigan Economic Development Corporation's Redevelopment Ready Communities (RRC) certification program.
Brett Hanlon, a RRC planner overseeing community development in Macomb and Wayne counties, describes the program as a comprehensive look at a community’s development related practices.
“It's everything planning departments want to do but either don’t have the time to do or there is not the political will to do,” he explains. “It's a way to incentivize communities to follow best practices that the RRC advisory council has agreed can apply to communities of all different sizes all across the state that should be in place."
In 2012 The Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) took the RRC certification program over from the nonprofit Michigan Suburbs Alliance and brought it statewide in 2013. Since then, the program has grown dramatically. In the beginning, it had under a dozen communities involved. Today, the certification program has 223 communities enrolled in the process all across Michigan.
"Redevelopment Ready Communities is a really unique program,” says Christopher Germain, a Senior RRC planner in charge of the Community Development in Oakland County. "Michigan is the only state that offers this kind of state-level technical assistance support to our communities. We believe it gives a competitive economic advantage.”
While the RRC certification program is free and voluntary, to be formally accepted into it, a city must first complete a two-day training series, a self-evaluation, and pass a resolution of intent to participate.
Once a community has been accepted, they receive a formal, baseline report from the RRC. The initial report identifies several items the city needs to address before they can become RRC-certified.
"One of the greatest things about RRC is that it is fully customizable to each community,” explains Germain."There are the same six best practices all across the state, but how [communities] meet them varies dramatically."
Those six best practices include:
Community Visioning and Education
Continuing Education for Public Officials
Tools for Redevelopment
Marketing of Redevelopment Sites
Redevelopment Plan Review Process
As a result of being certified, communities are looked upon favorably for project-specific funding through the MEDC.
In the Metro Detroit area, there are currently five RRC-certified communities. We reached out to three of them — one from each of the three Metro Detroit counties — to better understand the impact that RRC certification has had on their communities.
The most recent and largest Metro Detroit community to become RRC-certified, Dearborn received its certification this past January.
The city decided to begin the process because it was interested in "self-assessment and the opportunity to work with folks who were trying to benchmark and provide communities [redevelopment] opportunities,” explains Barry Murray the Director of Dearborn’s Economic and Community Development. “We thought that was a good idea.”
In July 2015 Dearborn received its RRC report from MEDC after being evaluated on under the RRC program. The report laid out several areas the city needed to address in order to earn their certification. Over the last two and a half years, Dearborn worked hard to update their policies, procedures and plans so that they better aligned with RRC best practices.Barry Murray. Photo by David Lewinski.
As a result of this process, the city has made amendments to its zoning ordinance in order to encourage pedestrian-friendly development and housing diversity. It also helped improve communication between Dearborn and various community stakeholders.
Like its predecessors, Dearborn is now being promoted for redevelopment and looking forward to reaping the benefits its fellow RRC communities have seen.
As the first official RRC-certified and recently re-certified community, Roseville has reaped many benefits since it was first approved in 2014, according to Roseville City Manager, Scott Adkins.
"It truly was a game changer for us. It has opened a full spectrum of new opportunities ” says Adkins. “We have had tens of millions of dollars of reinvestment in the city that I know we wouldn’t have had otherwise."
Before certification, the city had developers telling them they dreaded working with Roseville because the process took to long.
“We changed everything,” says Adkins. “We turned everything literally upside down to where we have developers now telling us ‘we love working with Roseville. Your thorough, efficient, and turn things over quickly.’”
Scott Adkins. Photo by David Lewinski.
As a result of following the redevelopment ready best practices, the city changed its permitting and review processes, made all their forms and applications available online, and put together marketing and economic strategies. It also gave the Roseville the opportunity to consider redevelopments that were never thought to be attainable.
"For 30 years the city had bounced back and forth on whether we should create a downtown development authority and it never happened” Adkins explains. "Well, after RRC, we created a downtown development authority to revitalize our original commercial neighborhood called Utica Junction.”
Another significant project that benefited from Roseville’s RRC status was the Macomb Mall. In the midst of shopping malls closing statewide, Roseville had the chance to help the shopping mall turned around and reinvented itself.
“That’s directly tied to RRC” Adkins says. “We were able to give incentives and help them think differently about their future which helped us.”
Following success with single site redevelopment, Roseville is now moving on to looking at entire corridor redevelopment. So far, the city has identified four prime corridors and is working actively with RRC and other agencies to promote them for new projects.
Ferndale received its RRC certification a little over a year ago after working towards the process for the last few years.
While the city has always been committed to RRC principles, as part of the certification process, they decided to create a whole new master plan that relied heavily upon incredible public engagement and outreach and research.
By revamping the city's the master plan, “we were able to cement our application for RRC,” explains Jordan Twardy, Ferndale’s Community & Economic Development Director. “It was the anchoring piece. You can see the tenants of RRC reflected in the master plan.” Jordan Twardy. Courtesy Jordan Twardy.
Even while they were going through the certification process — and updating their master plan — there was a lot of back and forth dialogue between Ferndale and the state. Now that they are officially certified, the city has been able to partner with the state on projects. More easily
"Because they know who we are and where we are headed as a community they have been able to more easily align Ferndale and other RRC communities with opportunities,” Twardy explains."For Ferndale resident or business can expect to see increasing collaboration between the city and the state and that will manifest itself in various projects."
Recent redevelopment projects supported by the MEDC have included Ferndale House, Iron Ridge, and Valentines Distilling expansion space.
“Collaboration is critical whether the economy is good or bad” Twardy explains. “We can do more together if we work together and I think that one of the biggest values of this program is that it makes it very easy for a municipality to work with the state.”
“The best words to describe Ferndale is exciting” says Germain. “They can’t develop fast enough.” However, Germain does admit that while all those directly involved in the RCC program have been extremely enthusiastic about it, most people living in RRC certified city will not be affected by it.
“If you say redevelopment ready community to the average person are they going to jump up and down with joy? The answer is probably no,” he says "But they are going to notice that things are smoother, that they have access to information that they probably didn’t before and hopefully they feel more likely to invest in their community.”