PlacePlans offer design concepts for Michigan downtown areas

Marquette and Cadillac are among the Michigan cities receiving plans to help improve target sites in their cityscapes to help improve aesthetics, walkability, and other key aspects to make their downtowns more attractive.
Marquette and Cadillac are the northernmost cities in Michigan participating in a placemaking process through the Michigan Municipal League, a Michigan State University design and planning team, and the Michigan State Housing Development Authority. It will provide grant funding to create designs to improve a strictly targeted area of each city's downtown.

The effort is called PlacePlans, and it is meant to help communities design and plan for placemaking projects that can transform a city or neighborhood into something better fitted for economic revitalization.

In Marquette, that translates to a study on how to fit Baraga Avenue into the downtown area. Baraga was formerly separated from the downtown by train tracks, and it is still a major artery with business and civic buildings and residences, and forms a connection to Marquette's lakeshore. Even though the railroad tracks are gone, walkability is still an issue, with an "uninviting streetscape and breaks in the city's urban fabric," according to the Michigan Municipal League.

The project planned is called the Baraga Avenue Enhancement Project, and would develop a design plan to make the street more walkable, connect downtown with the lakefront more effectively, and make the area more attractive to business investment.

In Cadillac, the PlacePlans designs are targeting an area adjacent to the city park encompassed by Mitchell Street, Cass Street, Lake Cadillac and Harris Street. Among the plans are possibly adding new residential space, putting in a new brewpub, linking the downtown to a regional trailhead for alternative transportation, and renovating and upgrading an existing arts pavilion.

The grant funding will provide a unified physical design plan to the block and all its related projects, which make up a key part of Cadillac's downtown, according to MSHDA. The finished improvements will fulfill the goal of creating a positive place to live, work and play and be able to provide infrastructure for future planned investments in the neighborhood and downtown.

The other cities receiving funds in the PlacePlans project are Detroit, Flint, Holland, Jackson, Kalamazoo and Midland. Officials in both Cadillac and Marquette say the grant provides only design plans for the targeted areas and does not provide cash for implementation of the plans. That is up to the individual communities.

"This is just a first step, but it is a first step we couldn't have taken without MSHDA, the Municipal League and MSU," says Jerry Adams, Cadillac's community development director. "The plans the group is putting together have come partially from community input at public informational meetings, and been tweaked by the MSU consultants as they have gone along.

"When the designs are finalized, it will give us a visual roadmap of where we might head. Of course, funding will be the big issue, but I think the plans will generate excitement that we can get people excited about funding to improve that part of downtown. There is bonding, grants, funding opportunities from the Michigan Economic Development Commission. It doesn't all have to be public money, either. We think the plans will get private investors involved, as well.

"The implementation of these plans could take years to come to fruition, but the point is, it's a starting point," says Adams, "and it's a starting point we wouldn't have without being selected to be one of the eight cities in Michigan to be part of this PlacePlans project."

Mike Coy, Cadillac's community development analyst, says some of the ideas coming out of the public meetings, and from the PlacePlans team, are to bury overhead power lines in the targeted area, perhaps building an outdoor ice rink for winter recreation, closing Lake Street, improving the pavilion, reconfiguring parking and making it more pedestrian friendly.

"(The PlacePlans team) has been real good about listening to the business owners in the area and the property owners," Coy says. "They have held half-hour interviews with them, one-on-one to get their concerns and ideas."

In Marquette, Baraga Avenue is the key portion of downtown on which the PlacePlans team is focusing. A public informational meeting was rescheduled from Feb. 27 to March 27 due to inclement weather, and Marquette business owners and residents, much like those in Cadillac, were to have a chance to hear about the plans, see initial sketches, and offer input.

"This is an initial visioning session," says Mona Lang, executive director of Marquette's Downtown Development Authority. "Then the MSU consultants will come back at the end of April with some new sketches based on the input they received, and ask, 'Do you like this better, or do you like this better?'"

There are several concerns on Baraga Avenue, says Lang. The sidewalk infrastructure could use replacement, the street itself is 75 feet wide and could be narrowed, overhead wires could be buried, and there needs to be a way to figure out how to eliminate the current "disconnect" between Baraga Avenue and the rest of downtown.

"We want to make it more appealing, more aesthetically pleasing, and tie it into the lakeshore," Lang says. "It's a great opportunity to have these plans created."

"We were thrilled to be chosen," she says. "It's not like we expect for this to happen overnight, but we think when people see the plans, they will generate enough interest and excitement to take that next step and talk about funding. That, of course, is the challenge. But, without the design concepts, we wouldn't even have the first step."

The gratitude and the excitement exhibited by officials in both Cadillac and Marquette are welcome characteristics to those behind the PlacePlans project.

"What I like best about these projects is that the passion and dedication already exists in these communities," says Gary Heidel, chief placemaking officer for MSDHA. "What's missing is a little bit of a kick start to turn that potential into reality or to take work that is already underway to the next level.

"The design and technical assistance being provided through PlacePlans will give them that extra incentive and direction they need."

Jeff Barr is a freelance writer who has lived in Michigan for 46 years. You can reach Jeff via email

Natalie Burg is project editor for Issue Media Group's placemaking series, underwritten by the Michigan State Housing Development Authority
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