Three Woodward Ave. development trends we're excited about

Whether it's a mixed-use building, an eye-catching design, or a never-tried-before concept, unique and innovative developments have much to offer their communities.

Up and down the Woodward Corridor, developers and planners are looking beyond the stereotypical cinderblock strip mall to create vibrant, walkable communities. In fact, the New Urbanism movement, which focuses on walkable communities with stores and services residents access daily, is taking root. Or so says Hayley Roberts, communications director of the Michigan Suburbs Alliance.

But metro Detroit has unique concerns with a regional bus system as its only transit. And that just exacerbates other issues, such as parking and gentrification.

"I think the real opportunity is for metro Detroit to think differently about revitalization," she says. "This region was once a place of opportunity for the aspiring American middle class. How can we redevelop that sense of possibility along with our cities?"

Roberts uses Ferndale as an example. For one, its downtown has seen an increase in activity, with restaurants and nightlife spots moving in. But there is also The Rust Belt Market, a former big box' chain store that was converted into a multi-use space that allows smaller businesses to display their wares.

But while the "hip" places are always fun, other cities need the tax base and transit options to survive. Instead of focusing on which downtown area is cool at the moment, Roberts says the focus should be more on regional growth. "Rather than having shared regional growth, we end up moving investment around the community," she says. "Have we actually changed the region or put a different mask on it?"

Ferndale: A walkable vision

Jake Sigal has a vision for transforming a Ferndale parking lot on the northwest corner of Woodward and Nine Mile into a mixed-use office, residential and parking development. He says the Ferndale 3-60 project, looks to the Rust Belt Market as one example of how a storefront can be transformed.

"I look at that as inspiration toward our project," he says.

The project is ambitious, forward-thinking… and not without its controversy. For one, the construction process temporarily takes away parking, a sacred cow to many metro Detroiters. Sigal's group has until March to complete its year of working with the city (via an exclusive negotiating rights agreement), to address design, community impact, and other factors. Over the past eight months, the team has been working with residents, business owners, property owners and officials to ensure that everyone's concerns are addressed.

Sigal and his wife moved to Ferndale from New England after looking for a place that had cool culture, people and restaurants, as well as a walkable and bikeable downtown.

"We fell in love with Ferndale," he says. "As we built our first business in Ferndale, we realized there's something cool about not just Ferndale, but the area" -- including the tech communities in Tech Town Detroit, Ann Arbor, and Auburn Hills. "There's a lot going on here with innovation and technology."

Part of what makes this project unique is the opportunity to transform what is now an under-sized parking lot near Ferndale's downtown. Visitors park on the residential streets, which makes it hard for residents to have their own visitors. "Anyone that's been to Ferndale on Thursday, Friday or Saturday night knows it's hard to find a parking spot," he says.

When people decide they don't want come downtown and deal with trying to find a parking spot, that's bad for business. But if he can bring more tech jobs downtown, and give them and hundreds of others a place to park, "that's something that benefits the entire community," he says.

The next step is to go back to the city council and planning commission with tan updated version of the plans. "We're excited about the changes to the plan we've made based on feedback from stakeholders," he says.

As the Ferndale Downtown Development Authority director, Cristina Sheppard-Decius agrees that the city has a kind of entrepreneurial spirit. Still, she says it's still a bit premature to say whether or not the DDA will officially support the project; they want to make sure the commercial space conveys the spirit of Ferndale, she says.

"That's important to downtown Ferndale and it's important to our community that we maintain our character," she says.

But there's a lot happening in Ferndale beyond the proposed 3-60 development. Sheppard-Decius has been seeing businesses reinvest in themselves through expanding or additional ventures, especially over the past 18 months to two years. "I think it shows downtown Ferndale is a successful place not only to have your business, but grow it," she says.

Mixed use is important for a downtown area because, like Ferndale, the landscape is already tight. A diverse building stock, taking better advantage of air space, and a wider variety of businesses will help prevent gaps or missing services. And keeping things compact mean the community is that much more walkable.

"In general, what the DDA calls for is mixed-use development in our downtown," Sheppard-Decius says. "It brings in people who will live in our downtown, as well as attracting office users downtown to increase daytime activity."

Other projects are happening outside of the downtown area, too: Valentine Distilling Co. recently purchased a new industrial building to expand its operation, but will still keep its storefront downtown.

"They're still maintaining their downtown presence, but growing the back end of their business," she says. "I think that's a great example of how we help our businesses grow but also retain them here within our community itself."

Sheppard-Decius estimates that 18 businesses have grown or expanded in the last year and a half, including retailers, service shops and restaurants. " I think that for a downtown or a community, it's about nurturing those who are here, retaining them, and finding ways to help the grow," she says.

Birmingham: Making mixed-use the standard

North on Woodward a few miles, in Birmingham, most of the new developments are mixed-use, says Jana Ecker, city planning director. Among sites with plans in the works include the former Greens Art Supply building, the Palladium theater and the Balmoral site at Brown and Woodward; all of them include a mix of retail, office, and/or residential.

Such mixed-use redevelopments might be rare in other communities, but they're standard for Birmingham. "Obviously, an activated first floor makes the community more walkable," Ecker says. "We already have great retail and buildings downtown. The last thing you want to see is a store set back, with a giant surface lot."

She says the city requires buildings to be built to the street, for active retail use -- and "retail" can mean anything from a store to a restaurant to a service such as a beauty salon. A building can be five stories tall if two are for residential and two are for office, which helps diversify space downtown and prevent a too-quiet downtown during evenings and weekends.

Like other communities, Birmingham struggles with parking issues, but that city works around this by providing public parking decks and lots. Another difficulty is price point. The already-trendy Birmingham is seeing higher prices as more developments come into place. It indicates a lot of pent-up demand for those looking for a downtown lifestyle.

Ecker says the city's planning board advocates for smaller sized units in an effort to provide more affordable options. The city is also seeing more rental units being built outside of the core downtown area, such as the Triangle District east of Woodward, and the Rail District, east of that.

Pontiac: Revitalization through mixed-use

Bob Waun hopes to take that mixed-use standard a few miles even farther north, to what he and a handful of other investors and developers are calling the Indian Hill Project in an area of downtown Pontiac.

The several dozen people -- all professionals from different industries who all have something to offer the project -- have committed time, money, and Rolodexes with the end goal of making Pontiac a nicer place to live, work, and play.

"A lot of people have tried to fix Pontiac over the years, and they've done it one building at a time," he says. "There hasn't been a comprehensive, community-supported plan to revitalize the downtown."

In all, the group owns nine buildings and two additional lots. They also have two other buildings under contract to close; they'll then control a little more than 400,000 square feet and 10 corners in that area. The investment will likely reach about $35-40 million, which the group does not have – yet.

But making money isn't as important to the group as making that section of Pontiac a successful urban neighborhood.

"We're really doing this because we want to make something good happen," he says. "We're looking at these old buildings that we've purchased, taking a deep breath, and letting the buildings talk to us -- let the people talk to us, tell us what the community wants to have in their town."

For instance, there are a few hundred residents between McLaren and St. Joseph Mercy medical centers, who would likely patronize a coffee shop, or sleep in a 600 square foot microloft between shifts. For now, they're talking to potential tenants, recruiting a mix of retail, services and restaurants.

"More restaurants in a town creates a vibrant restaurant district," he says. "That's part of the problem -- if there are only a couple restaurants, after you've been to those two, where else is there to go? What do you do after dinner?"

They met with city officials last week and continue to keep them involved in the development process. "We've been getting really good feedback," he says. "The city's been incredible to work with. This is a city that's very pro-development. And the community realizes that they've got blue skies ahead of them if they embrace change."

Kristin Lukowski is a Detroit-based freelance writer.   All Photos by David Lewinski Photography

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