Managing the future of successful cities

June 1, 2016

Birmingham and Rochester, the two downtown cities we actively cover and write about each month, at first glance appear to be very different. Rochester, a comfortable and homey bastion of small town life, is thriving, as is Birmingham, which presents a more urbane city environment, mixing national and regional retailers and restaurants with upscale local merchants and bistros. Yet each is succeeding, whether in difficult economic climates or more prosperous times, because those leading these cities have engaged in municipal planning for the future – in essence, managing the local communities. 

The sustained growth and vibrance of Rochester and Birmingham shows the importance of electing and appointing visionaries to boards, councils and commissions, and to the necessity of spending on principal shopping districts, downtown development authorities, and for prescient leaders who can aid them in the development and refinement of their cities. It is also a testament to the uniqueness of communities, and to straying from the “cookie-cutter” approach of much municipal planning.

Over twenty years ago, city leaders in Birmingham realized that rather than stagnating and becoming another “infill” city, they would take the lead and develop a master plan to help envision the growth and direction of where and how they wanted the city grow. After numerous civic meetings, they hired noted architect and urban planner Andres Duany from Miami, one of the founders of the Congress for the New Urbanism. 

New Urbanism advocates for the restructuring of public policy and development practices to support neighborhoods that are diverse in use and population; communities that are designed for pedestrians, as well as transit and cars; physically defined and accessible public spaces and community institutions; and urban places framed by architecture and landscape that celebrate local history, climate, ecology and building practice. Duany, along with other firms, created a 20-year plan called the 2016 Master Plan, which prescribed creating a more walkable downtown, a city center with a redesigned Shain Park, set the stage for the city's bistro liquor license ordinance in 2007, activating alleys and passageways, and other ingredients which were a recipe for vitality. Walkability would become the keyword for the recreation of Birmingham.

The 2016 plan, which has been largely implemented, has been successful. Today, Birmingham is home to more than 600 businesses, drawing more than 5 million visitors each year, not including those that work in the downtown area. There is more than 3.5 million square feet of retail and office space, with a retail occupancy rate of about 98 percent. The Birmingham Shopping District and its leasing consultant have worked to create unique mixes of retail and to keep vacancies low.

Rochester is currently at work on a visioning process, and its Principal Shopping District (PSD) was created in 1996 as a tool to provide funding for marketing initiatives, with year around events, underwritten by funds from assessments, contributions from the city's Downtown Development Authority (DDA), which is focused on addressing capital improvements, and from sponsorships and fees. 

Each city has had the foresight to adapt to changing trends, and to realize that downtowns, no differently than neighborhoods or malls, are living, breathing entities that must refashion themselves periodically to survive. Not only urban planners, but civic leaders, have Royal Oak to use as a startling lesson of what not to do – once a quirky, interesting downtown with unique boutiques, antique shops, idiosyncratic hang outs and restaurants, is now a train stop away from complete irrelevance. While there are a few destination restaurants, Royal Oak is paying the price for permitting a surfeit of nightlife establishments and bars, which begat the treadmill of more nightlife, and the quickening exodus of retail. Those that didn't head north to Birmingham or Rochester have fled south to burgeoning midtown and downtown Detroit – along with affluent twenty-somethings and their dollars.

Birmingham commissioners and board members are beginning to recognize that their city could become another Royal Oak, and have begun to wisely say enough to bistro applications in the central business district that could jeopardize the fragile balance the downtown has with retailers. They also created certain ordinances to restrict nightclubs and bars, after dangerous situations arose with the former South and Hamilton Room nightclubs. Rochester will be wise to keep a similar balance in its downtown between retail and food and beverage establishments.

But with success come other challenges.

In Rochester, we commend city leaders for the recent proactive moves to build two new parking structures, which were approved in 2014. Recognizing that surface parking had outgrown its capacity for accommodating businesses and shoppers, city leaders bit the bullet, providing another 555 spots, at a cost of $12 million. 

In contrast, Birmingham has allowed the community to reach a crisis stage regarding parking, with 90 percent of its office space not only full, but filled with a creative class of employees in advertising, PR, social media, along with law firms. The change in the nature of the businesses occupying the office space, and the trend nation-wide of communal work areas where less space is devoted to each employee, has meant an increase of workers in the same square footage, heavily taxing the city's five municipal parking structures. 

As Robin Boyle, an urban planner with Wayne State University, and a member of Birmingham's planning board tells it: "One challenge is that office and commercial businesses want to secure monthly passes for employees and they aren't able to get them. And retailers are concerned with so much on-street parking that customers can't find parking adjacent to the shops. There's still some reluctance from shoppers going to the decks, and they hunt for parking and it increases congestion on the streets." 

The city of Birmingham has been talking about long-term parking expansion for over two years, with a plan to build two extra floors on the Pierce Street structure seemingly ready to go last summer. Now, with infrastructure being rebuilt street by street, and parking non-existent, that plan has been abandoned with no word to the public as to why, as the parking committees and city commission laboriously examine a long-term plan to rebuild the N. Old Woodward structure, along with retail and housing. Possibly a great plan for down the road – but where do the hundreds of cars which park at the N. Old Woodward structure each day park while that is rebuilt? And that still does not negate the issue of what to do with both employee and visitor cars each and every day. 

We are concerned that Birmingham is dragging its feet with meeting after meeting while this parking problem could seriously jeopardize everything the city has wisely and diligently created over the last 20 years.

So, yes, both communities have done a good job on the municipal planning front, but assuring a city's future requires community leaders to see the potential problems further down the road and react in a timely manner to avoid the crisis – the very basic definition of management.

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