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.