Michigan Musings

Earlier this month I visited family and friends in Michigan. In between these visits I snapped a few pictures of familiar and unfamiliar spaces.

Grand Rapids

I grew up in Michigan and most of my family lives in the Western portion of the state around Grand Rapids. Over the last ten years, the city has hosted ArtPrize – a downtown contest for visual and performing arts where citizens vote on their favorites. On our visit to the Children’s Museum we passed by the 2nd place entry from 2009.

“Imagine That!” by Tracy Van Duinen

I love the way this bright, mosaic mural livens up the street. It feels like a natural extension of the Children’s Museum. It is a wonderful example of the lasting effects public art has on civic pride. 

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In The City of Bikes

Amsterdam’s love affair with bicycles goes back to practically the invention of the pneumatic tire. Pete Jordan explains In The City of Bikesthat the city embraced two-wheeled transport nearly a century ago. Shortly after World War I, the Dutch were able to import German bikes at a steep discount which led to a boom in cycling.

Jordan’s weaves together his personal experience as a American transplant to the Netherlands with the city’s cycling history. The author’s passion for bicycles leads him to count cyclists at intersections throughout Amsterdam while classifying each rider. He recounts his observations of the ways people ride bikes as passengers (aka dinking), the types of rain gear bicyclists use, and a catalog of large objects transported by bike.

The book shines in its detailed recollection of Amsterdam – especially the chapters on the Nazi occupation years. Jordan vividly describes the horrors that the Dutch faced during World War II while keeping the focus of his book on the unique role of the bicycle.

The author calls special attention to places where conflicts over cycling became heated – in particular he recounts the various efforts to close the bike passageway under the Rijksmuseum and the protest parades in Dam Square. I find it interesting that these spaces were flash points in the city’s transportation debates for decades.  However, Jordan’s detailed history of the multiple failed attempts to launch bike sharing in Amsterdam were perhaps the most fascinating to me.

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If highways are a drug, trails are treatment.

Something interesting happened during the nine years I lived outside of Ithaca – it grew a network of trails into its surrounding towns. A glance at the county’s bicycle map shows how these pedestrian friendly tendrils connecting downtown and campuses to rural hamlets. Dig deeper into the Priority Trails Plan and you will find a vision for an even more robust network of non-motorized trails.

Trails can be an important part of a treatment to our national addiction to highways. Yonah Freemark made this striking analogy on his blog, The Transport Politic:

“For American cities, highways are a drug. They’re expensive to acquire. They devastate healthy tissue and arteries, replacing previous modes of nourishment with destructive ones. They force the rest of the body to adapt to their needs, and they inflict pain on those nearby.”

Trails connect communities and open up recreational opportunities. Compared to highways, trails are a bargain (often an order of magnitude less expensive).  Trails enable physical health as people use them to walk, run, or bike.

Trails can help rekindle human connections. On a trail a group can hold a conversation without distraction. (Interestingly, social connection is seen as a treatment to drug addiction.)

While it’s common to hear objections to trail projects on the basis of increased crime or lower property values, new trails have been shown time and time again to be reliably safe and a benefit to neighborsContinue reading

The First Warm Day in Burlington

What comes to mind when you hear Burlington, Vermont? Ben & Jerry’s, Lake Champlain, Phish, Bernie Sanders, perhaps a Coat Factory? Recently I was fortunate enough to visit along with a dozen representatives from Ithaca, New York. We found some surprising parallels between our two places.

Church Street

Four blocks of downtown Burlington’s Church Street are closed to vehicular traffic. The church at the northern end of the pedestrian mall provides a memorable terminating vista. It also served as a landmark that helped me navigate the city.

We were fortunate to visit on the first warm day of spring which drew out crowds of locals and visitors. While most retailers and restaurants were local businesses, about one-quarter of the spaces were occupied by national chain stores according to our host.

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A House, Divided

Hank Dittmar (who sadly passed away earlier this month) delivered an inspiring presentation for the Savannah Urbanism Series last fall. His visit to Coastal Georgia coincided with a Lean Urbanism exercise organized by the Savannah Development & Renewal Authority that explored ways to generate development in urban neighborhoods where investment has stalled.

Over the past three months, I’ve been thinking a lot about housing – mostly because I have been searching for it myself. After looking at dozens of homes in Ithaca I have witnessed how strong demand for rental housing has transformed the physical fabric of the city.

One thing that stuck with me nearly half a year after Hank’s presentation is a fact he shared about Washington, D.C. during World War II. According to his presentation, the city’s population soared after the war started. The city’s public broadcasting affiliate, WETA, confirms this:

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A Tale of Two Buses

Since relocating to Ithaca, I’ve been riding the TCAT bus to work. While my total commute is just under two miles, nearly 300 feet of elevation change make walking less attractive – thus my decision to ride the bus.

Before leaving Savannah, I had also started riding the bus more often. The re-configured dot shuttle to be specific. In September of last year, Chatham Area Transit (CAT) made a major service change on its fare-free downtown routes. For my two mile commute into downtown, this meant public transit was suddenly much more appealing even though I had to walk several blocks to get to the closest stop. (Full disclosure – I worked for CAT while this route change was being considered.)

While these two bus trips might seem similar – they could hardly be more different.

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One Hour in Richmond

Recently, during a cross-country road trip, I decided to explore Richmond, Virginia.

Approaching the city from the south on I-95, I quickly realized that I did not appreciate Richmond’s size. Downtown hosts a healthy number of high-rise buildings and its suburban fringe extends many miles beyond this core. In other words, there was no way I was going to have enough time to see anything beyond a sliver of this city.

I decided to explore an area dubbed the “Canal Walk” located on the edge of downtown. There is a lot to love about the Canal Walk.

Preservation of Historic Infrastructure

The Canal Walk preserved an important element of Richmond’s industrial history – the James River and Kanawha Canal. Before the railroad, canals we’re essential mode of transportation for heavy and bulky materials. Richmond’s canal connected the city to the James River and ultimately to the Atlantic ocean.

The new Canal Walk allows visitors to see how an industrial canal worked within the city. Interpretative signs tell the story of the materials that the canal moved and the people who worked in the area – many of whom were enslaved.

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Parting Thoughts

In a few days, I am moving to Ithaca, New York to start a new position with Tompkins County’s Planning and Sustainability Department. Before I begin this journey, I’d like to reflect on my time living in Savannah.

I was tempted to title this post: Get Your (stuff) Together Savannah, but decided against it. Looking at the long list of things in need of attention in the city made me feel a bit hopeless. Instead, I’d like to focus on the efforts to improve this magical little city.

For the past three years I have called Savannah home. As a transplant here I’ve felt welcomed by many locals and other people who chose to live here. I have memories and friends here that I will never forget. Here are some worthwhile efforts to make Savannah a better place:

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Frandor: Revisited

I gave myself a challenge in December: redesign the Frandor area in accordance with the master plan vision for the area while preserving the same footprint for retail currently on the site.

The entire site is 68 acres. It is bounded on the West by Homer Street (a frontage road of US-127) and on the East by Ranney Park. The site faces Michigan Ave. (M-143) on the South and Saginaw Ave. (M-43) on the North. Clippert street is the only public right of way that cuts through the site. With the exception of the new residential tower, it is exclusively retail and commercial space.

I think this site offers a compelling opportunity for a suburban retrofit because of its location. Frandor sits halfway between downtown Lansing (the state capitol) and Michigan State University. Michigan Avenue connects these two regional hubs.

Streets and Blocks

Lacking GIS data for the site, I sketched in approximate property lines and right of way using the information I could find on the city and county websites. My first step in redesigning was to come up with a system of streets and blocks. Living in Savannah has taught me the value of short blocks and alleys (or, as they’re called here, lanes) in creating walkable urban environments.

I eventually decided on a pattern of 17 blocks. The block in the southeast corner of the site contains the SkyVue apartment building. A large central block contains a public park.

In order to encourage people to walk throughout the site, I laid out streets that are safe, comfortable, and desirable for pedestrians.


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I had two primary goals for the buildings: to meet the residential density target set in the Lansing Comprehensive Plan and to accommodate the existing large-format retail properties. To achieve these goals and provide housing for a broad mix of people, I incorporated 30 different building types on the site.

Conceptual Design

The video below illustrates a conceptual design for the Frandor area. The buildings are simplified massing models which lack fenestration and other ornamentation.  I’ve included a few elements such as trees, parked cars, and people to scale the site. Otherwise I have kept the model simple to focus on the urban form.

This design achieves an overall site density of 25 dwelling units per acre – which aligns with the city’s vision for the area. The table below describes the commercial and residential development potential for each block. (Block ID labels shown above.)

Block IDAcresCommercial Gross SFResidential Gross SFResidential UnitsDwelling Units per Acre

What about the zoning?

My cursory overview of the zoning for this area indicates that the current rules would not allow many elements in the design I came up with. Most of the land is zoned F (commercial). Buildings in this zone are required to include front yard setbacks (20 feet), limit height (40 feet), and provide parking. (The parking requirements took up three pages of zoning ordinance text.)  This would make it impossible to establish the type of environment I’ve sketched for the area. Unfortunately, these requirements are also out of step with the Comprehensive Plan’s goals as they artificially restrict the density allowed in the area.

A savvy developer approaching this entire site would likely attempt to rezone it to a PUD (planned urban development) classification. In essence, that proposal would initiate a long and complex negotiation between the developer and the city. Only the biggest developers can afford to engage in projects like these due to the high legal costs and uncertainty.

Mending the Urban Fabric

There is one major capital investment that might make the Frandor site much more attractive for redevelopment: a lid over highway US-127. This limited access road creates a noisy, hazardous moat between Frandor and the remainder of Lansing. Cities around the country are exploring the possibility of capping urban highways. Each of these projects offers unique benefits to the surrounding community such as increased green space, improved connectivity for pedestrians and cyclists, and even additional potential for urban development.

Yet, for communities with tight budgets, these projects can feel like an unnecessary luxury. The capital required to pull off a successful highway cap project may simply be outside the range of possibility. Thankfully, communities with similar issues are finding ways to make highway underpasses more attractive, pleasant and safe.

Finally, if this site is going to be developed in the manner I’ve shown, it will need frequent transit service. This service needs to connect the development to major employment nodes in the region (such as the capitol, MSU, Sparrow Hospital, etc.). The provision of useful transit will substantially reduce the need to build parking on the site.

What makes an apartment building graceful?

What makes an apartment building fit well into a neighborhood? My first reaction was that I know a good apartment when I see it. While this view might work for the US Supreme Court definition of “hard core pornography” (Jacobellis v. Ohio, 1964), it’s not particularly helpful for figuring out what sorts of apartment buildings fit into urban neighborhoods.

I went in search of multifamily buildings in Savannah that seem to fit well within their surroundings.

106 West Gwinnett

This six story apartment building is the tallest structure adjacent to Forsyth Park. Its first floor is occupied by commercial tenants (currently a vintage clothing store and a bicycle shop). The yellow brick tower has long been one of my favorite buildings in the city.

The building hugs the lot line and is surrounded by streets on three sides. These streets allow plenty of light into all of the windows. The top floors peek over the tree canopy to provide unparalleled views of the park and city. The building’s stylish parapet makes it recognizable from a great distance.

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