Is Kalamazoo on its way to becoming a Strong Town?

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan's Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.

A local group is hoping to advocate for Kalamazoo's strong-townness. STAK (Strong Towns Advocates for Kalamazoo) formed this past summer out of a Winchell neighborhood read of Chuck Marohn's 2019 book, "Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity." 

Marohn, a professional engineer in Minnesota, has since started a Strong Towns organization, looking to advocate for change in urban environments.

STAK members acknowledge that traffic calming changes, such as the Michigan Ave. bike lanes, might be frustrating for drivers, but are needed to make downtown more livable. Also they argue that Kalamazoo needs to prioritize affordable housing.He describes himself as a fiscal conservative in his book. Marohn makes the point that after World War II, mid-century America began investing in suburbs, freeways, and a car-centric built environment. Investments in areas outside of towns drained resources from the cities, and created sprawl that tax revenues eventually couldn't maintain, he argues. Cities reach a point where they can't handle any unexpected changes, and can't sustain their own infrastructure — he states "We are all Detroit," holding up the Motor City as an example. 

People moved further away from work, shopping, schools, and essential services, so more taxes had to go into car-dependent infrastructure. Zoning restrictions made affordable housing rare in cities and encouraged people to move to — and motivated developers to build on — cheaper suburban and rural land. Marohn looks at the societal cost of this way of life, where a connection with neighbors, safety, and overall livability has been sacrificed. 

The way U.S. cities changed in the past 75 years is contrasted with the way cities developed in the past. As this Strong Towns video about Chicago shows, early city growth was messy and disorganized, but usually developed into mixed-use neighborhoods with housing that was affordable to residents. 

"When you read 'Strong Towns,' you can't un-see it," Winchell resident Nathan Browning says. 

Nathan Browning began STAK (with Reid Williams, not pictured) after reading "Strong Towns." He couldn't "un-see" the sprawl around Kalamazoo after reading the book. (young, brown hair)Browning read the book in 2021, the same year he started biking more than driving. Wondering why the traffic around his former apartment near the intersection of Drake and Stadium was so horrible, he realized that, "Well, there's traffic because our housing is so spread out into Portage, even into Mattawan, into the surrounding suburbs." He and his fiancee were unable to walk or bike to their favorite frozen yogurt shop "500 feet from our apartment door," across Drake, so for safety they drove, and "added to the traffic."

Drake and Stadium are "stroads," he realized. 

A term coined by author Marohn, a stroad is a street/road hybrid. A street is a low-speed setting for businesses and homes, a "complex ecosystem that produces community wealth," Marohn writes. A road's function is to allow people to drive distances between points at a higher speed. Stroads attempt to combine the two, wide and fast roads usually lined with franchise restaurants and shopping centers. 

"We like to call them 'the futon of transportation,' Marohn writes, "because, just as a futon is neither a particularly good bed nor a particularly good couch, a stroad is neither a particularly good road or a particularly good street."

Reid Williams works for NowKalamazoo.We interviewed Browning for a story on biking last May. He mentioned "Strong Towns" in the story, which led Second Wave reader, journalist, and NowKalamazoo staff member Reid Williams to look up the book. 

He connected with Browning, and the two formed STAK. One of the Strong Towns principles is to form community groups to help influence local development.  

"Don't be too quick to anoint me as leader," Browning jokes. STAK falls into the "local conversation framework," encouraging open discussion. "It's really loose," Browning says — it's not so much about following strict dogma as it is about working with "the flavor of the community you're in, and who wants to come to the table."

Questions and warnings

We arranged a group talk with STAK members, including Riel Manriquez, who'd recently moved from Portland, Oregon to Kalamazoo, and Rich Voorman, a retiree from Pfizer with an interest in bike infrastructure.

Riel Manriquez says local zoning and other regulations need to change "to solve affordable housing, to reduce traffic that nobody likes, to get people walking again.""We sort of take for granted our built environment," Williams says. "We don't question often enough, why do we do it this way?" He's been to other cities and has seen that "there really are other ways" to build an urban environment that works for people. "Why is it things are the way they are here?"  

"The book is two things, it is a warning and a question," Manriquez says. "The warning is, our cities are insolvent.... what has happened in Detroit, is going to happen to all the cities."

The warning is "a smart warning, not like 'oh no! Everything's on fire!'" Manriquez says that eventually, the costs of maintaining overbuilt infrastructure become greater than the local tax base can handle.

Manriquez says that the traditional framing of progress is taking us in an unsustainable direction. Traditionally, "We feel that technology and civilization are on a forward path. Everything's going to get better and better and better. And 'Strong Towns' is a warning, 'No, we're gonna have to u-turn, suburbs cause problems, we're going to have to u-turn, come back, and decide what do we want to have in our built environment.'"  

Rich Voorman, a retired Pfizer employee, became interested in Strong Towns because he supported improving bike infrastructure.Regulations, zoning, and local laws need to change "to solve affordable housing, to reduce traffic that nobody likes, to get people walking again," Manriquez says.

Traffic has long been a concern for Voorman. He lives in the Winchell neighborhood and sees speeders doing more than double the 25 mph speed limit. Speeding is a problem downtown, he says. Especially Michigan Avenue, "It's a racetrack, it's fearfully dangerous."  If traffic was slowed, downtown just might be a livable community. "Strong Towns brings us back to that notion that this is what community is about, these thoroughfares that you can walk along, you can bicycle, you can drive a car." 

Is Kalamazoo becoming a Strong Town?

Voorman says the city administration is working in a Strong Town direction, "with bike lanes and slowing traffic." Thanks to city traffic engineer Dennis Randolph, "we've never been in a better position to address these issues," he says. "It's just going to take time to get it done. And there's lots of civic resistance to doing it. It could be pretty ugly in making this transition." 

Manriquez points out that most Kalamazooans, driving around the various changes, aren’t really concerned about Strong Towns topics. The other STAK members acknowledge that it could be a long time before Kalamazoo’s street projects are done, and a longer time after that to see, for example, more people on bikes as bike infrastructure improves, or more people downtown as quality of life improves.

Manriquez brings up the city's Safe Streets for All project that includes speed humps, roundabouts, bike lanes, and other traffic calming changes for most Kalamazoo neighborhoods.

Browning notes that the city is getting federal funds to make these changes. "The funny thing is, they're applying for grants because it's not cost-effective to redesign these things because it's so overbuilt." 

As an advocacy group, STAK is focusing on the smaller details, so far. Browning says that, after their Winchell read, they heard from neighbors who were upset at some of the traffic calming pilots there. "The rubber roundabouts are ugly," he says was a common opinion, so STAK is looking at ways to beautify them with native plantings that match the neighborhood character. 

He talks about an informal path people made through the trees from Winchell Way Apartments to businesses on Stadium — what if it could be paved or landscaped to make it an official walkway? "These little things — and then you have a whole neighborhood that's suddenly connected in a non-motorized way to a string of businesses — including Sweetwater Donuts which I am a fiend for." 

It's the little things for STAK right now, but they point to Strong Towns Grand Rapids’ level of action as a goal. STGR managed a letter-writing campaign that stopped the demo of five downtown buildings for a large parking lot last fall. 

Overall, STAK wants a conversation to help neighbors transition from "getting mad about changing the way things are, to trying to understand the long term," Browning says.

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Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering a bewildering variety of subjects. He also writes on his epic bike rides across the country. He's written a book on one ride, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information, see www.markswedel.com.