Monday, August 23, 2010


As one may have guessed from reading this blog, I have a problem....I spend too much time on Mlive.

I recently read a post on an MLive forum which praised the organizers of Back to the Bricks. This was, of course, followed by several comments from other users who spewed negative thoughts about the city. I fought the urges, I tried to look away...but I just couldn't keep myself from writing a short note of my own, explaining that I rather enjoy being a young person in the City of Flint, and made the following statement:

"It was wonderful to see so many people, even if just for the weekend, see the beauty that I see in the city every day."

This was, of course, followed by several comments from other users who spewed negative thoughts about the city. Including this one, by the opinionated "Tampabbay99"

"Name ten beautiful things about that dump!!! "

Again, I had to hold back the urge to simply spew some words of my own. But then I thought about the right way to respond. What were 10 things that I found beautiful about Flint. I now have 10 followers, so someone must be able to assist me in this quest.

I know that responding to an MLive comment is often either like preaching to a choir...or like talking to a chalkboard, but a big piece of me wants to tell Mrs. Tampabbay ten things that she might see next time she graces my community with her presence.

So what is it? Could you name 10 beautiful things about this dump?

Friday, August 6, 2010

Good news, music lovers!

I don't know if was an attempt at musical synergy, or the result of poor communication, but this weekend downtown will host both the 29th Annual Flint Jazz Festival and the 2nd Annual Flint Blues Festival. The Jazz Festival has held a long established place in the "Flint Parade of Festivals" and will take place in Riverbank Park today, tomorrow, and Sunday. The Blues Festival will take place only on Saturday in the cultural center.

I have been to Jazz Festival many times in the past, and I have always enjoyed relaxing by the river while listening to some pretty impressive acts (and wondering how they managed to get a grand piano over the canals and onto the ampitheatre stage.) This event is free, and there are usually plenty of street vendors nearby if you don't want to miss a single strum of the bass while grabbing a bite to eat.

I did not, however manage to make it to the Blues Festival last year, however it does have the hefty sponsorship of The C.S. Mott Foundation and Budweiser. Tickets are 15 dollars "at the door" but the whole event is a scholorship fundraiser for the Valley Academy. There also seems to be an accompanying downtown pub crawl on Saturday evening.

As downtown gears up for the heavy onset of August weekend visitors, a little music might be just what we need.

For more information on the acts and on the fesivals themselves, use the links at the top of the post, and happy listening!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A Quest for Public Art

Overflow parking, by artist Blue Sky, is among the most recognizable pieces of public art Downtown. (I won't even get into the discussion on "parking as art")

As I have mentioned before, It was the arts community that initially attracted me to downtown. When standing outside of "The Local" I would stare at the city surrounding me and realize how false the clichés used by my peers to describe Flint really were.

The arts bring a lot of people downtown. Second Friday ArtWalks have been gaining momentum for years, the nearby cultural center has been an artistic draw for decades and it is rare to find a weekend where there aren't at least a few live shows happening at various venues downtown. This is not all that unusual, as center cities are often the hub of the local arts culture. One component often found in such hubs is public art ( often traditionally thought of as large scale, outdoor sculptures, murals etc.) Public art can be, and often is very symbolic of the community in which it is displayed. Pieces such as Chicago's "bean" Detroit's "Spirit of Detroit" and Ann Arbor's "Cube" have all become adored icons of their respective cities. It was with this in mind that I began to wonder.."Where and what is Flint's public art?" and "What do these pieces mean to our community?"

"The Big Gay Thumbprint" as it is affectionatly known as on campus, is a large scale, outdoor sculpture on the U of M Flint campus. However its placement in a courtyard, away from the street prevents most off campus traffic from enjoying it.

A walk through the grounds of the University of Michigan Flint will take you past a small collection of sculptures and of course the nearby F.I.A. proudly features many large scale works on their grounds. These pieces don't feel....public to me though, as you have to physically enter the grounds of the institutions to view them, instead of simply encountering them when turning a corner on your morning commute. So where is Flint's public art?

Our community does have its own collection of public work. The tongue-in-cheek "Overflow Parking" mural on the side of the Flint Journal building is a beloved downtown icon, however, the majority of public art seems to be concentrated on the grounds of various downtown institutions instead of the parks, sidewalks, and storefronts where they are traditionally installed. Riverbank park once claimed to be home to the "world's longest mural" however after years of defacement, the city simply covered the work with beige paint. Riverbank park also was home to a small collection of impressive sculptures. However, after the largest of the pieces toppled over from a gust of wind a few months after the park opened, several other pieces were removed from the park, leaving only two; a small steel piece in the amphitheatre block, and a statue of Casimir Pulaski tucked away in the trees of the Archimedes Screw block. So what does the fact that much of our public art has either been removed or hidden from casual view say about our communities commitment to such art?

Interestingly, there was community uproar when MTA manager Robert Foy used federal grants to install several pieces throughout their various facilities, including two outdoor sculptures at the downtown station (although most of the upset seemed to come from the fact that the majority of the work was placed inside the administration building where the public could not easily enjoy it.)

This also could open up a discussion about what actually counts as public art. The Vernors Mural, and the Saginaw Street Arches are both artistic and symbols of Flint as a whole, but were originally installed with much more utilitarian purposes. Some may consider such places as the "waterwalls" or the "Grand Fountain" at riverbank park to be public art, and the role of guerrilla street art has been gaining momentum in Flint and worldwide. Overall, public art adds color, whimsy, beauty, and fun to the public realm. However, the importance of such characteristics to our community can only be decided by us.

Works like this dot the downtown street scape, and certainly add to the character of our city center. Do you consider this public art?

What do you think? Do you feel that public art plays an important enough role in the urban landscape to encourage, even demand a continued devotion to it in downtown Flint? What are your favorite pieces locally or elsewhere?

Monday, July 26, 2010

Low Key is Key

In recent years summer has been the season when downtown pulls out as many stops as it can in order to draw crowds back. With much success highly publicized events such as the Crim and Back to the Bricks have briefly brought crowds of hundreds of thousands to our own little city center. These events have undoubtedly given people who had never been downtown (or had given up on it) reasons to support it, both in spirit and finance. However it still seemed that once the weekend of races, or roars of engines had ceased the visitors would retreat for the winter, having not found a reason to appreciate downtown outside of those few brief weeks in August.

This past weekend exemplified, in a really lovely way, a very different approach to downtown events. Instead of one massive, expensive affair, bringing thousands of people into our neighborhood interested in a single interest and event; several small events catering to many interests brought life to the city center all weekend long. On Friday the GFAC brought local authors together to present their works to the public, Saturday included the Farmers' Market Bar-B-Q off, a benefit concert at The Good Beans Cafe, and the "Keep on Keepin' on" festival at Riverbank Park. On Sunday afternoon downtown hosted the inaugural "Le Champion Pavé" bicycle criterium.

I love that all of these events happened independently of each other. Even though each appealed to very different demographics and interests, they undoubtedly fed each other and, in turn, gave authentic energy to downtown. What I hope they did, however, was show those who attended that there does not need to be a giant event to make downtown a vibrant living place. Moments like this happen year round. What I enjoyed most about this weekend, though, was that that it felt like it was a weekend for the downtowners. As fun as the larger events are, they depend (and rightfully so) on the tourist dollar. It is the small things, the intimate outdoor concerts, and the exhibit of a local artist that say "community" to me..and truly represent the types of civic life that make a city vibrant.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Bolingbrook IL.

"What a nice day, I think I may go for a drive through the subdivision, then a few parking lots, so I can take a stroll through the city center complex"

It is Monday. Monday mornings combined with my inability to get to Good Beans before heading to the office often result in a very slow start to my work day. On days like this, I often go through the "Yahoo Stories" which tantalize me with colorful stock photographs and catchy article titles, and are placed strategically right under the summarry of my work inbox. So naturally, when given the choice of "Re:Re:March 2009 Board Mtg. minutes update 3a" or "Are Silly Bandz just a fad?" I tend to go the silly bandz route.

On this caffeineless Monday, I innocently clicked on "America's best places to live" and casually scrolled through the list of towns I had rarely to never heard of. The descriptions were vague, and the photos clearly directly from the board of tourism, but I wanted to see if any local burgs had made the cut. The 100 city list did eventually give Ann Arbor some love (the only Michigan city) but it was actually number 43; Bolingbrook, Illinois that caught my attention.

It was the photo that initially grabbed my attention. While most of the other profiles featured images of quaint downtowns, forested parks, or laughing children, this one was an aerial shot of a "lifestyle center" type shopping mall. Why would this manufactured cartoon of a traditional downtown full of national chain retail be chosen to symbolize what the experts(?) at CNNmoney chose as the 43rd best place to live in America? I quickly read the included description and conducted a little research on my own to figure out more. What I discovered was a town that was completely devoid of pre-world war 2, pedestrian oriented planning, and forced it's residents to rely almost completely on auto transport.

In fact the first large developments in Bolingbrook were two subdivisions built in the early 50's known as "Westbury" and the "Colonial Village" These were quickly followed by shopping centers, apartment complexes and housing subdivisions, all charmingly named. This mash-up of disconnected development of course leads to a lack of community identity, to the point that an atlas actually listed the entire town as "Colonial Village." Perhaps this identity crisis contributes to why this city of 70,000 people considers itself to be a "village"

Beyond Bolingbrooks issues with identifying itself, it also seems to be having a hard time figuring out what a town really is. As I stated earlier, the town does not appear to have any sort of traditionally built city center, so a mall development company was kind enough to manufacture one for them. The photo of this "lifestyle center" actually makes it look rather pleasant, it seems to have many of the attributes that urbanists appreciate in a place, narrow streets, on street parking, outdoor seating, and pedestrian scaled architecture....but then you take a look at the
big picture. What seemed to be a progressive pedestrian oriented commercial corridor is actually surrounded by acres and acres of paved surface parking lots. Even though the mall company released this p.r. photo to make the mall seem quaint and pedestrian friendly, what they ended up creating was a place that you had to be a motorist first, and a pedestrian second.

Other gems include the inclusion of a "fishing lake" on the "town center complex." Any time you have to refer to your town center as a complex, you know you are doing something wrong....and what kind of town center has room for a fishing lake?! The description includes such charming retail options as IKEA, and Macy's to give you that authentic one of a kind down home Bolingbrook experience. My favorite inclusion, however, was the disclaimer at the end of the article saying that event with all of these fabulous things, most residents of Bolingbrook must make the 30 minute drive to Chicago for employment.

...As you can tell this all touched a nerve...

Bolingbrook looks great on paper. The median family income is near $100,000, there is 21% job growth, and 66 % of the residents went to college. But aside from the statistics, the closest thing this town has to an identity is a "Town Center Complex" with a side of fishing lake. I have not spoke with any Bolingbrookians, but I wonder how they would answer if I were to ask them what their town looks like...feels like

Flint has not had a great relationship with top 100 lists, so perhaps I should not be so quick to pass judgment on this town. However, what I really hope to learn from this is how we define places as good or bad. As livable or hostile.

How would you define Flint?

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Which Way Part Deux!

A few years after my initial navigational confusion, I began spending the majority of my time downtown and quickly learned the ways of the one ways. Even though mastering the street plan was pretty easy, learning the correct way to drive down West 2nd Street seemed like an initiation into the downtown community.
While one ways are certainly a common identifying feature of our nation's cities, a sign that one is in the city center, the system that was just replaced in Flint had only been there for about two generations. With the huge amount of factory workers commuting through the downtown area in the middle of the 20th century, the city decided to increase the road capacity by turning several major roads into one way streets.So what effect did the one way system have on the downtown community, and how is the conversion going to change the transportation patterns?A very apparent and obvious change is that the path from point A to point B has become much less convoluted, as most streets now allow a driver to travel in two directions. By re-striping these lanes, engineers were able to fit in all kinds of goodies, like turning lanes, bike lanes, and in some cases, parking. (Some on street parking was, however, removed for the conversion) The inclusion of a turn lane on every section of every street is a curious one, there are entire blocks of streets where, with the exception of the actual intersections, there is nowhere to turn. Yet the traffic planners still designed turning lanes into the street, instead of widened bike lanes or on street parking. The rearranging of lanes has also caused some vehicle congestion issues on both Saginaw Street and Grand Traverse. It also seems that when the actual re-striping was happening, the re-stripers paid little attention to whether or not the lanes actually lined up on both sides of the intersection.

A big positive was the inclusion of bike lanes along most of the converted street. I have heard many people complain that the bike lanes occupy much needed space that should have been designated for driving/parking. However the fact that the city has invested in improving the biking infrastructure might just represent a very cool shift in Flint’s approach to transportation. The bike lanes are sometimes just as screwy as the driving lanes, and end abruptly and unexpectedly in really inconvenient spots, but a start is a start. Biking downtown could be a post on its own but for more on biking through Flint, check out vehicle-less city a great new blog by a fellow downtowner.

Walking downtown is now theoretically safer, as drivers have proven to speed when driving on one way streets. However, I have heard more than one walker complain about having to check for traffic from both directions before crossing the street. (Come on people! Shouldn’t you do that no matter what?!)

Downtown businesses should also theoretically benefit from the change, as they are now able to gain exposure and access from two directions of traffic. Although, with the majority of downtown’s business community located on the already two way Saginaw Street corridor, perhaps this does not apply.

A funny thing about us downtowners; we are a proud and stubborn people, once we were initiated into it, we became proud of the one way systems slight inconveniences, and the confusion it caused to out of towners. Sometimes the hardcore downtown crowd gets so caught up in being downtowny that we have a hard time recognizing what changes are for the better, and this blogger feels that the conversion on the one way streets to two way streets may be one of those changes.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Which Way?

My first encounter with the famed one way streets of downtown was probably similar to many people of my generation: driver's training. At 15 I had mastered the art of properly accelerating onto the expressway. I learned all three hundred points on my pre-departure inspection checklist, and I was a pro at adjusting my rear view mirror. But there were a few aspects of moterism that one could not experience while practicing on the back roads and cul-de-sac neighborhoods of Swartz Creek. It was because of this, that the last place that my driving instructor took us was the terrifying, complicated, infamous streets of downtown.

There were three major reasons for the dreaded downtown driving session. First was to learn how to safely drive with the presence of pedestrians. The fact that "driving in the presence of pedestrians" was only possible in an Applebee's parking lot and downtown could be its own post. I didn't end up doing my training until the evening, however, and as it was at that time, there were very few pedestrians to avoid hitting. The second goal of the session was to learn how to parallel park. This was perhaps the most dreaded of all tasks, and even though I had set up a mock parking spot in my driveway to sharpen my technique, the outcome had been hit or miss at best. So after a few misses , my instructor took the wheel for me, pulled into the elusive spot in one smooth elegant motion and said "there, that is how you do it." (Which may explain why I still have a hard time properly parking on the side of the street) Lastly, we had to learn how to navigate, and properly turn onto one way streets. While this task wasn't exactly difficult, we had all heard horror stories of people driving the wrong way, and turning at the next street only to once again realize that they were going the wrong way. Eventually they would just be stuck in a vortex of wrong turns until they were 18, and could take their driving test without completing training.

It was commonly argued among those of us waiting for our turn behind the wheel, that these one way streets served no purpose. That they were just there to confuse us corn fed, mall shopping suburban kids. But we didn't think too much of it once we passed the test, it wasn't like we would be heading back downtown anytime soon.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Right To Alfresco!

Businesses in Birmingham have the option of placing dining patios on the parking spots in front of them, so as not to cramp the sidewalk.

Monday night was a lovely night. Combine the wonderful weather, free crepes, a political protest, a business opening, and the Capitol Theatre being open for exploration and you get a breath of what many of us hope so much for downtown to be.

After the hoopla it seemed natural to keep the momentum going so some friends and I decided to have a drink downtown. Turning the corner from 2nd Street to Saginaw Street, and seeing the packed Blackstone's patio, we realized that we were not the only ones who thought that was a good idea.

In just a year's time, the sidewalk patio at Blackstone's has become a symbol of the new downtown. Even at times when the interior of the pub is fairly dead, the handful of tables outside are often full. While many suburban bars offer lovely tiki-themes patios, and other outdoor seating options, people seem to be coming out of the woodwork to enjoy the novelty of eating out in the open, while watching the street life pass by.

The only thing is, this is hardly a novelty. All over the world, alfresco dining is a standard, casual option. Communities closer to home like Ann Arbor also boast their sidewalk cafes, and people flock there. Just this week it was announced that 501 and Churchill's will be opening sidewalk seating options, however they both had to petition the city government in order to offer such an experience. Some people argue that the sidewalks simply aren't wide enough to accommodate diners, and pedestrians, and in some cases this might be true. Blackstone's and the soon to re-open Churchill's patio sections are recessed into their shopfronts, allowing for more space on the sidewalk for passers by. However, we are not the first community to deal with such an issue. Nearby Birmingham MI. allowed restaurants to "rent" the parking spaces directly in front of their restaurant, build a platform on it, and use the space as extra seating.

Alfresco dining is great for both the diner, and the onlooker. By adding movement and purpose to the sidewalk other than simply transportation, we transform the sidewalk into an exciting public place. By showing that we have active civic live at the street level, we encourage more civic life to occur, and as my friend and fellow activist Erin Caudell said Monday night "I feel like it is my right to eat outside"

Monday, May 10, 2010

Celebrating Suburbia

Suburbia imitates our downtown Our Downtown imitates sububurbia

I peruse through the catacombs of Mlive, I came across a few articles that intrigued me. The first was an article on downtown security guards being hired by local businesses to give people from the suburbs a visible sense of security, despite the fact that the layoffs did not reduce downtown police coverage, and the crime stats downtown mirror those of the suburbs. I appreciate having extra eyes on the street no matter what the crime levels are, but I far are willing to go to cater to "those unused to an urban environment?"

This desire to lure the elusive suburbanite by creating a more mall-like atmosphere in America's down towns has been going on since the middle of the last century, when malls began to truly compete with traditional urban commercial districts. Decades ago the an awning was constructed over the sidewalks, and music was piped in to give the downtown shopping experience that "strip mall feeling". Over the years Saginaw has been closed to through traffic , "Downtown Sale" events promised great deals and perhaps the biggest flops: Two sub-urban style shopping centers were constructed in the city center, resulting in Windmill Place, and The Water Street Pavilion.

And of course, we built a heck of a lot of parking.
And of course, to build this parking, we had to demolish blocks and blocks of buildings.

The second article that I discovered covered the 40th birthday of the Genesee Valley Mall (A topic which has been discussed on here before) It discusses the changes the mall has made since opening in 1970, as well as the relative success it has had by diversifying its tenant base. What I found fascinating, however, was that in the malls first few years of operation, the list of shops very much resembled what you would find in a traditional downtown. The mall had a grocery store, a butcher, a bank, as well as a slew of shops that relocated from downtown Flint. In the following years, as the mall, and the surrounding area sprawled, the shops inside became more retail based. Reflecting that great suburban past time of building areas that serve as one use "pods." As my mom said "I have no idea why we ever needed so many shoe stores."

In recent years, it seems, Genesee Valley Mall has realized that such a specific one use approach is difficult to sustain. With newer, shinier shopping centers opening in places like Brighton, Grand Blanc, and Fenton, the slew of shoe stores are following. In a strange twist, this has caused the local mall to take (probably unknowingly) take a page from the traditional downtown handbook. In fact Genesee Valley went so far as to actually construct a large Main Street style knock off called "The Outdoor Village" and rent a space to, of all things, a university. (sound familiar?)

So how should we interpret the fact that these two places are imitating each other? Will downtown keep sub-urbanizing until its unique urban fabric is completely gone? Does the newish approach by the mall represent a cultural shift in the way we define place?

I'm sure the Mlive commenters will have a colorful answer or two.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

What Does This Post Have To Do With Affordable Housing?

Berridge Place Apartments provide low-income as well as market rate apartments in a setting which does not require the tenant to own a vehicle.

So friends, here I am again

After spending some time at the Michigan Affordable Housing Conference, I have come to realize that many people who are fighting the good fight, may not quite know what they should be fighting. I attended several sessions ranging from "Acquiring and Rehabbing Foreclosed Properties" to "Downtowns in Michigan are Alive and Well" to "Weatherizing your Historic Structure" And while all of these were interesting and informative it was the session entitled "Is Your Community Walkable?" that really surprised me.

It wasn't the topic that I found so off-putting, it was actually an impressive lecture on the "complete streets" initiative in Lansing (more on that another time) What really shocked me was the responses of the other conference goers in the room. The presentation included several slides depicting good, and bad examples of walkability in urban areas. Upon seeing an image of a compact city back-alley with decorative lighting fixtures, and well maintained back facades, a young woman behind me whispered "That must be Paris, or Prague"

A sidewalk café:
"Well sure, that works in Florida"

An entire block of parking:
"How else do they expect people to hang out there?"

An outdoor ice-skating rink:
"Ok, that is pretty cool"

But perhaps the worst comment was not made about the examples being presented, but about the presentation itself:
"What does this have to do with affordable housing?"

Despite the fact that the community activists in our country should recognize that vibrant civic street life can happen in all communities, in any climate, and without enough parking to provide one space for everyone in the metro region, the bigger issue was that this young woman, who was undoubtedly working hard to improve the lives of the less fortunate was missing a huge part of the picture. The poor, perhaps more than anyone else, benefit greatly from living in a community in which they can easily walk, bike, or take mass transit to reach their needs.

No matter how much the government subsidizes housing, no matter how many food or health benefit programs we provide, it doesn't do anyone any good if they can't afford to get to them. If we continue to build an infrastructure that forces everyone to purchase, and maintain a vehicle in order to reach every service that they require, we are putting a huge strain on an already heavily burdened population.

We are lucky though, because creating a walkable environment for the underprivileged is solved with the same simple measures that making every community walkable takes. First, things like subsidized housing should be designed with the pedestrian in mind, as well as placed in a community where many of the resident's needs are within walking distance. This means not separating the facility from the street by a sea of parking, or a large unused lawn. Also taking heed of the proximity to things like pharmacies, grocery stores, schools, and places of employment. (Another point could be made that large amounts of low-income housing should not be grouped together, but that is a whole different post) Secondly, we simply have to make the actual trip safe, and enjoyable. This means properly maintained sidewalks, functioning lighting, and hospitable mass transit stations. Remember, the less practical we make our communities for walking, the more strain we put on those who's best option is to walk.

Downtown Flint has a few examples of both tho wrong, and the right way to do low-income housing. While the 70's and 80's brought examples like Richert Manor on Court Street, which is surrounded by parking, and not particularly close to any services, recent have begun to see developments that seamlessly blend low-income housing with market rate housing, all in a walkable environment. A good example of this is the "Berridge Place Apartments" This historic hotel contains market rate, and low income units side by side. There are cafés (with outdoor seating I might add), coffee shops, places of worship, schools and a soon to be open grocery store all within a few blocks.

So when we think about providing affordable housing options to those who need it in our community, be it students on a budget, the elderly, starving artists, or families, we have to think not only of the price of the housing itself, but of how affordable it is to be in the community they are placed in. By providing the residents a community within which they can do most of their day to day errands without a personal vehicle, we also provide them a better, and less expensive quality of life.

And that, fellow community activist sitting behind me, is the point of the whole movement.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Town and Gown

The University of Michigan-Flint displays its pride outside one of the most prominent buildings on campus: The beautiful "Northbank Center"

The relationship between a university and its host city can be a finicky one. Cities like East Lansing, New Haven CT, and Springfeild OH, have all had notoriously rough relationships with the places of higher learning that reside within them. In Flint, it is hard to go a day without hearing some city booster proclaiming us as a "college town," and while many are banking our success as a community on academia, others are not so quick to bite, and others are even unsure if they want an influx of students.

My question is what about this "College Town" idea is so appealing, esspecially to Flint's post collegiate community?

First, our colleges oare undeniably expanding. Just today it was announced that U of M Flint is the fastest growing university in the state. Mott, Baker, Kettering, and U of M have all seen major expansions of their physical campuses, and the infrastructure of our city has even worked to allign itself with the needs of the colleges, with the renaming of 3rd Avenue to University Avenue, and the opening of Kearsly Street.

Recent years have also brought an onslaught of websites, campaigns, and initiatives, like,, and FIA collegetown, all aimed at pushing the idea that Flint (particularly downtown) offers lots of studenty experiences.

It isn't hard to see why many people are skeptical. Rewinding thirty years, we found much of the same energy, except it was rallying around a much different, now infamous attempt at revitalization. In fact if you replace the word "Autoworld" in the press releases from 1983 to "Student Housing" in one from 2007, you might have a hard time telling the difference. The idea of transforming our entire city is still a difficult idea for many to put stock in.

So again, why are we so many attatched to this idea of being a student centered town? Many people look to places Ann Arbor as an ispiration for what downtown Flint could be like, and it is this that I find extremely interesting. Is it really the students that many Flintoids find so impressive about this quintessential college town? Or is it something else?

I think this could be a pretty in-depth discussion, let me know what you think

...more to come

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Not Good


If anyone has been downtown in the past 36 hours, they most likely saw evidence of at least one of the fires.

The fires, attributed to arsonists, seem to be targeted exclusively at abandoned homes in the Carriage Town, and Grand Traverse neighborhoods. Many are claiming that they are being set in response to the recent layoffs to the fire and police force.

Neighborhood groups are organizing to board up at-risk structures, and holding neighborhood watches for the evenings ahead.

Keep working together guys!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A New Tradition?

You would have thought that people were coming to Blackstone's for years. On March 17th (Saint Patrick's Day for those of you that have been living under a blarney stone) the masses came downtown, to wear, eat and drink green.

Blackstone's, which was originally planned to open last St. Paddy's Day, has been counting down the days since it's grand opening last April. Evidently people got the hint, because patrons arrived ready to celebrate at 7 A.M. By noon the place was packed both indoors and outdoors, and by the time the parade went by....well it seemed like the patio was having a pretty good time.

Frankly, I didn't realize until now that Flint had a Saint Patrick's Day Parade.

Blackstone's wasn't the only place downtown to enjoy (or cope with) a surge in green clad customers. Most of the bars and restaurants that I saw were filling up by 3 p.m. In fact, the only place that may have saw a drop in patronage was the university.... if just for the afternoon

What I loved the most, however, was that people somehow seemed to know that downtown was the place to be this year. Everyone from the student crowd, to the professionals. Perhaps it was the lure of being able to drink at several places without having to get behind the wheel. Or maybe it was the lure of some shiny new establishments, but I would like to think that this attitude grows, and pretty soon, a green beer at Blackstone's will be a must for every Flint area Irishman, even if they are only Irish for the day.

Monday, March 15, 2010


If I had to choose one event that really summed up downtown Flint, it would be ArtWalk.
Sure, "Back To The Bricks" celebrates our automotive history, and "The Crim Festival of Races" has been a flagship event for decades, but ArtWalk quietly, and creatively honors what downtown is to me.
12 months a year, on the second Friday of each month, downtown venues open their walls to artists, and their doors to visitors. While it is enjoyable even in the depths of winter, ArtWalk seems to gain a little extra oomph during the warm months. This past Friday's certainly started the season with a bang. Along with the great visual art on display at GFAC and Buckham, The Lunch Studio, Churchill's and Good Beans Cafe all hosted musical performances. Top it off with the yummy hors d'oeuvres (not to mention the beer and wine) available at several of the stops, as well as the gorgeous weather, and you had a night that couldn't be beat.
Did anyone else make it out?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Movin' On Up!

An exciting rendering of the hubbub and traffic patterns bound to take place once the Durant opens!

After 30 sad, empty years, the Durant Hotel (now simply "The Durant") finally seems to be nearing it's re-opening!

A recent update from MTH management shows some renderings, a breakdown of the rents by apartment number, and what appears to be an opening date of August 15! MTH is advertising 93 units, a mix of 1 and 2 bedroom units, all with one bathroom, running from $550 to $950 a month. Oddly enough, none of this is advertised on the Durant's website. Instead, you have to go right to the manager's site. Good thing I am posting a link!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

A Not So Small Achievement

¡Feliz cumpleaños!

In the whirlwind of the past few months, I completely forgot to recognize a victory in our downtown community. On February 9th, "Soyla's Mexican Cuisine" quietly celebrated completing it's first year of being open for business. Soyla's has ran into a few roadblocks, with mixed reviews, a menu that changes frequently, and hours that can be even more erratic, but with nearly half of all small businesses unable to survive even their first year, Soyla must be doing something right.

I actual was able to go to Soyla's on opening day. I had heard that the restaurant was to be opening when the Wade Trim building in which it is located finally was completed. However, I had heard little more about it, until I happened across a copy of the Journal (then printing 7 days a week) and noticed the headline declaring Soyla's to be open for business. I immediately grabbed a friend and walked there from campus. I remember the food being good, the dining room being full, and the staff being frenzied. What I remember most though, is just the excitement of simply being there. I'm not sure if it was just the Flint nerd in me coming out or what, but I couldn't help but absorb an energy as I ate my enchiladas while looking out of the giant windows at the Capital marquee. I hoped that this would become a very normal experience for downtowners.

Soyla's was the first of this recent string of eateries downtown, and I have to give it props for that. I have since eaten there several times, and like many patrons, I have had mixed experiences. However, I continue to support Soyla and her restaurant because of the delicious food, Soyla's hospitality, and her commitment to the city center.

Here is a recent review of "Soyla's Mexican Cuisine" from fellow blogger Bob Barnett, who's food blog Eating Flint reviews restaurants all over the Flint metro area.

So whether you have been to Soyla's or not, I encourage you to try it, or try it again, and when you are there, feel free to give Soyla your feedback, and maybe a verse of "Happy Birthday"

Monday, March 8, 2010

Another Promise

They like us! They really like us!

Downtown Flint has been named as a "Downtown of Promise" by the state. But what does that mean? According to the Flint Journal, the DDA is eligible for about $40,000 to create a plan for the future. Larry Flint, the director of the DDA, states that “It will sort of be a blueprint as to the kinds of businesses that we need to go after to fill the holes as far as becoming a comprehensive downtown area”

Many people (Ahem....Mlive commentators) see this as a waste of money, however, a plan could be a nice new alternative for a city who isn't known for it's organized approach. For instance, Five restaurants have opened in the past two years. While this is certainly a victory, does the DDA plan on having a bar and grill based commercial center? One would think that a professional study would encourage an emphasis on attracting retail.

That being said, what type of retail would you want? We already have a handful of retail options downtown, are we doing enough to support them in the meantime?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Tower(s)

Two drastically different structures dominate the downtown skyline. One respects the pedestrian, while the other accomidates the automobile.

Last month I asked if Genesee Towers was an asset, an opportunity or a waste of space. Seeing as how no shared their opinions, I have been forced to find the opinion of a fellow student from "The Michigan Times" U of M Flint's student newspaper.

Mr. Burch brings up some good points. To many Genesee Towers is a symbol of Flint's decline, as it was built at the peak of our economy, and has been reduced to a public nuisance. It also is an example of really, really bad urban design. Let us compare it to the structure immediately to the West.

Genesee Towers and The Mott Foundation buildings are clearly stylistically different, the latter born from the Detroit school of Art Deco, and the former from the generic catalogous of mid-century "modernism."(I believe that Genesee Towers was actually an exact reproduction of a building in Tennesee) However, there are much more relevant differences. Namely, their relationships to the surrounding landscape, and it's population.

Let me explain

When walking infront of the Mott Foundation Building, the pedestrain is greeted with large windows, graceful ornementation, awnings, and a "grand entrance" all built directly at the sidewalk's edge. While these elements may seem unimportant or even elementary, they are often ignored. They greet the pedestrian and respect them by providing them with an interesting route, which makes the pedestrian more likely to use that route, and frequent the business that are located there.

Genesee Towers. however, takes a very different approach. When walking alongside GT (even before the barracades were constructed) the pedestrian is greeted with blank concrete walls, and fumes from the cars being stored inside. There is hardly any ornamentation, let alone shopfronts to hold the interest of anyone walking by. Infact, the first 8 or so stories are dedicated soley to the storage of vehicles. The designers of this building completely ruled out the option of a downtowner strolling by and being seduced by a shop window, or a sidewalk cafe. In other words, they decided that the needs of cars were superior to the needs of pedestrians.

Clearly we can see that the design for G.T. was unsustainable, but is it worth saving? Should we renovate the bohemouth into a structure that adds to the street life of downtown? Or should we demolish it, and run the risk of another block of parking?

Friday, January 29, 2010

An Urbanist Victory?

The Rowe and Wade Trim buildings managed to blend interesting architectural elements with local building styles and pedestrian friendly design. Who would have thought?

With the recent "Grand Opening" of the Rowe building, and the slightly less recent opening of the Wade Trim Building across the street, one can easily see that that positive development is happening downtown. What I find more interesting, and encouraging though, is the quality of the development that these two structures represent.

Our urban infill record downtown has been anything but sterling. Take, for instance, the McCree Court Building (Formerly a Montgomery Wards, I believe) In one of the past revitalization efforts, several historic, mixed use structures were taken out for this gem of modernist, anti-urban design. Aside from issues of "Style" the real problem with this building is that it greatly took away from the urban, walkable feel of the neighborhood. Instead of respecting the pedestrian by providing windows into which one can see the goings on of the interior, the poor walker is greeted with beige concrete. A good friend of mine said it best. "The only thing that I like about this building is the awning that keeps the sidewalk dry when it rains" One only needs to look across Saginaw street to see the types of buildings that this giant cement box replaced.

With no ground level windows, a single entrance point, and city block size, the McCree Court Building is often mistaken for a prison.

Later infill projects, Water Street Pavilion and Windmill Place may have been more attractive, but they also heavily developed the parking aspect of their designs, and of course, destroyed plenty of well designed, beautiful large scale urban structures. . . . But that's another post

The Rowe, and Wade Trim buildings are a cause for a little bit of celebration. They are built to the sidewalk, are architecturally interesting, while still respecting the local building heritage, and scale, and they provide pedestrian friendly ground floor retail space, with mixed use upper stories. They of course have their faults, the Rowe building especially destroyed some gorgeous original facades, and the Wade Trim project was forced to demolish two adjacent buildings that it hoped to save, but all in all, if we are going to have infill projects, this seems to be the way to do them!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


The sun sets over the sea of parking downtown.

Ahh the great pillar of suburban society: vehicle storage. There has been a lot of talk recently about downtown's parking situation. First a story breaks that the spanking new parking garage on the corner of Kearsley and Beech is only about 60 percent occupied and still has a ten million dollar unpaid tab. Days later we discover that the DDA issued parking tickets are unenforceable, and therefore have been encouraging long term parkers to park in the street's 2 hour spots instead of in the parking structures. The DDA's response to this is to re-install parking meters along the streets downtown.

While this certainly brings up points as to how appropriate it is for the city to charge downtown patrons to park. I am just as interested in discussing the importance that we as a society place on parking. Why, after demolishing entire blocks of historic buildings for surface parking and after erecting several mammoth parking structures do we still have such a demand for parking?

Should we instead invest our resources on making it easier to get downtown on foot or by mass transit? Improving our non automobile infrastructure would certainly reduce the amount of parking needed, if less people heading downtown were doing so in cars. Or is the need to drive our own vehicle everywhere we go so deeply ingrained in our culture that accommodating more and more vehicles is necessary?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Franchise v. Locally Owned.

Pottbelly Sandwichworks often finds hip downtown locations for their franchises, such as this store in Ann Arbor.

According to the Flint Journal ( ) Potbelly Sandwich works is looking to open a location or two in the Flint area. Which brings up an interesting question: Should we encourage popular franchises to open locations downtown?

Founded in Chicago in the late seventies, Potbelly has become a staple in both large cities, and college towns throughout the Midwest. Aside from Potbelly's popularity, they also have a reputation for moving their franchises right into the middle of downtowns, and adding to an attractive and lively streetscape. Potbelly locations have found success in Ann Arbor, Lansing, and many other college towns around the nation, and perhaps the addition of one here would add a little more legitimacy to Flint's claim as a center for higher education.

However, some may argue that encouraging a franchise downtown may do more harm than good. Right now, downtown's businesses are almost entirely local. A few years back, a "Bigby Coffee" location announced plans to move downtown, and there was a small but loud outcry from the downtown community to "Keep Flint Local!" Also, we have several sandwich shops already operating downtown. Of course The Lunch Studio, Mike's Triple Grill, and Hoffman's come to mind, but Blackstone's, Wizeguys, 501, Halo Burger, Tom Z's and others all have sandwiches on their menus as well. How would the addition a new, high profile competitor affect their business?

On that note, do we even need any more restaurants downtown?

Franchises are a tough sell, because they are often seen as heartless, corporate outposts that funnel a communities money to headquarters. However, when we find a responsible, and successful franchise, should we simply shun it as simply that? While a Franchisee is required to pay fees to the national chain in order to use the trademarked name, much of the money does stay local, and of course, it creates jobs.

With the company looking to find a location in the area, should we take the chance of hurting our current businesses and encourage them to locate downtown? Or should we take the chance of having them locate in the suburbs, and miss out on the customers that it could have drew
to downtown?

Let me know what you think!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Asset? Opportunity? Waste of Space?

"And you see Frank, in forty years, when this auto slump is over we can just invest in concrete that wont fall of in giant chunks!"

A lot of things have been said about the iconic "Genesee Towers" but I am curious what the downtowners think. Reports have stated that the building is structurally sound, and only the exterior cement panels are falling apart. The building is a great example of mid-century ugly architecture, but tearing it down would be a massive hit to the visual girth of our city. What do you think?

My love story part III

Now this was a great place to act out some angst. The Flint Local taught me that
downtownwasn't nearly as scary with
punk rock shows and suburban kids with emo haircuts.

As I conclude this epic tale of love found, let me say one thing. I do not hate the suburbs, nor the people who live in them. I am very grateful that my parents raised my siblings and I where they did. The school district was great, and the people even better. What upsets me is that the suburbs have been planned in a way that if you are too young, old or poor to drive, you are really unable to have any sort of independance. The lack of public domain makes many of these places seem like any other place, and forces the residents to use the private sector's malls, or the internet for social interaction.

Anyway! Throughout high school, I began visiting downtown for school, and leisure purposes. A few nights a month, I would head to the Masonic Temple to hear local bands play, and gradually I realized that downtown wasn't nearly as scary as I imagined it was. A series of events eventually ended up in me enrolling at the University of Michigan - Flint in 2006, and I began not only feeling comfortable down here, but really enjoying it. At lunch, when my fellow students were heading to Miller road, I would opt to patronize one of the few downtown options. Gradually I learned more and more about the history of the area, and became more involved with local efforts to make it better. in Fall of 2007, I moved to carriage town, and since then I have found that my physical surroundings, although worn, and at times sad, are so much more satysfying. I love being able to walk to school, work, and coffee. I also love that during this commute I can alter my route to view the river, parks, historical architecture, and many a friends house. After years of feeling not quite right about my environment, and knowing that there had to be an alternative, I finally discovered why.

Since then I have met many great downtowners, all with similar visions for what downtown can be. I have taken to the study not only of my communities, but of what makes other communities great, and so much of it boils down to proper planning. Planning that allows people to naturally meet in plazas or on sidewalks. Planning that makes the public realm attractive enough that people want to leave their cars parked, so as to enjoy being a part of it. Flint is in a good place to make a lot of the right decisions, and we have made poor ones recently enough that we know what doesn't work. I can't wait to help those decisions along.

Whew! I'll try to not do any more three part posts! I would, however love to hear from others in the community about why they love this quirky neighborhood, and how that happened. (That is if I ever get any readers)

Monday, January 11, 2010

My love story part II

Strange that a small neighborhood of log cabins and beaches, connected by
dirt roads and trails felt more like a community
than "Monticello Estates" or 'The Reserve" ever did.

Before I continue, I should also explain the parallel environment that I spent my childhood in when I wasn't in Flint. Like many Michigan families, we had a cabin "up north" that we would visit from time to time. However, unlike most Michigan families, the kids in my family would spend every day of their summer at the family cottage. From the day after school got out in June, to the day before it started again in August, I would be on the lake in Saint Helen, Michigan. This place was so very different from both downtown Flint, and Swartz Creek. I could walk or bike wherever I wanted to go, I knew everyone in the neighborhood, and I never felt unsafe. It felt more like a community than any subdivision with some cute name back home.
Again, at the time, I really had no idea why I felt this way, strip malls, parking lots, office parks, and vehicular transportation seemed like the normal way to live. I knew they were aesthetically awful but I also didn't understand the effect that had on the way I felt when I was there. In my mind, my little woodsy neighborhood in Saint Helen was very much the exception and not the rule. Once the school year started back up again, we would trek back down to Genesee county and back to the other way of life. I would spend my free time playing simcity and only seeing my neighbors when we both happened to be getting the mail at the same time.
But what did I care if the planners didn't even bother putting sidewalks into my township? I had just passed my driving test and I was about to get a car! The ability to drive drastically changed my outlook. I was able to explore further and further away from my house, and for the first time South of Saint Helen, I
felt like I had some independence.

Friday, January 8, 2010

My love story Part I

With no town square to mull my time away in, I was forced to people watch,
meet friends, and generally act out my angsty teenage independence
in-between a eyebrow groomer's kiosk and an incense stand.
(As long as I could get a ride from mom)

If I am going to share my feelings with cyberspace, I should probably introduce myself, and explain how I arrived at this point.

It wasn't until I started attending the University of Michigan Flint that I realized that urban planning was a legitimate career, perhaps because my environment up to that point had been completely devoid of planned, quality space in the public realm. I grew up in a half farm/ half subdivision area of southwest Genesee County, known as Rankin, and attended school in Swartz Creek. Both of these communities, while lovely, had nothing to offer in the department of public space. In fact, these places are so lacking in attractive public space that a google image search of both result in zero photos of the actual town centers. Even the Swartz Creek Chamber of Commerce couldn't find a picture interesting enough to put on their website. So it is no wonder that for years, my idea of an effective public space was that great suburban concoction; the shopping mall, in this case, The Genesee Valley Center.

Of course, at the time I didn't really know what "public space" meant, I just knew that the only place that I would be able to naturally run into a friend or classmate was at the mall. I also had been through many a local, traditional public space, but was unable to recognize it as such. The downtowns of Flushing, West Branch and Holly were always a treat to drive through, I loved the old architecture, and feeling of community, but I failed to compare the uses of these places to the mall that in many ways replaced them.

Then, of course, there was Flint.

Like any good suburban boy, I was scared, and saddened by downtown Flint. Keep in mind, this was the mid-nineties, when downtown was arguably at it's worst point. Every once in a great while I would get to accompany my father on an errand to the Boy Scout office, downtown. After listening to him triple check to make sure the doors were locked, I would press my face against the car windows and stare up at what seemed to be the biggest, most beautiful buildings I had ever seen. I think my dad recognized the joy I got from touring the metropolis because nearly every visit ended with a chocolate croissant from the farmers market, and the obligatory slow drive past the fabulous capitol marquee. My outward excitement was matched, however, with a genuine sadness that I was less apt to share with my dad. This didn't look like the cities that I had seen in movies. The buildings were grand enough, and the sidewalks had benches, and decorative trees, but strangely no one seemed to be using the sidewalks, and the buildings seemed to have been relieved of their tenants. Each story that I heard from my family about shopping on Saginaw, shows at the I.M.A. and banquets at the Durant did not match up with what I was seeing from the back seat of dad's '92 Silverado. I knew that this was a special place, a simple comparison confused me so much. Why would a place this beautiful be deserted, while a place as homely as Swartz Creek grew?

As I pondered what I imagined was to become of those few blocks city, it was my assumption that they would simply be demolished and the land would be re-used for strip malls, and Chili's restauraunts with lots of convienent parking. While that seemed like a very logical and profitable solution, the idea was so disheartening that even my chocolate croissant wouldn't lift my spirit.

Lets do this

Flint has had it's share of ups and downs, and I am sick of hearing about them.

"A Better Downtown Flint" is not about what we used to be, although we can learn from that.
It is not about how bad things have gotten, although that needs to be addressed.

This isn't a portal for overzealous, optimistic P.R. stories, although those can be appreciated.

"A Better Downtown Flint" is about what we can do to make our beloved community a vibrant, and incredible place.

There is an authenticity to this little plot of our state, an energy that comes from a growing group of students, workers, residents, and activists that love the feeling that comes with being downtown. It might be the history of the streets, and the buildings that give it such a sense of place. It may also be the presence of locally owned businesses and organizations that are so undeniably ours. Possibly it is the surprisingly diverse groups who populate the sidewalks, the university, and neighborhoods. As I learn more about my city, and more about what makes a place truely great, I want to share it with you. Whatever made you fall in love with this community, please share it with me, and keep working hard to make it a better place.