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.