Rethinking the cities for Millennials, Baby Boomers
For most urban areas, in the question of the chicken or the egg, it's clear which came first. The metropolis developed from a mature downtown core with neighborhoods surrounding it, and then smaller cities were incorporated as suburban areas that grew over decades. In southeastern Michigan, that's how it happened, too.
In 1920, Detroit was the fourth largest city in the United States, after New York, Chicago and Philadelphia, due to the booming automobile industry, and later, the addition of Prohibition, as the Detroit River was a major conduit for liquor smuggling throughout the U.S.
Detroit experienced growing pains through racial conflict and discrimination which followed rapid demographic changes, as hundreds of thousands of new southern workers, including many African Americans, came north to work in auto factories during the mid-20th century, as well as significant immigration of southern and Eastern Europeans, which led to segregated neighborhoods. In the 1940s and 1950s, freeways split Detroit neighborhoods, and the suburbs began to burgeon and grow, led by “white flight. “By the 1970s and '80s, Detroit was a city rapidly in decline, which seemed to hit rock bottom with the (former mayor) Kwame Kilpatrick scandal in 2008.
Then, in the midst of the Great Recession, surprisingly, Detroit began to rise again. Spearheaded by mortgage baron Dan Gilbert, who initially brought 1,700 Quicken employees from Livonia to downtown in 2010, he also started buying numerous buildings in the center core. Today, his business empire includes approximately 20,000 employees in the city's heart. Many of those employees are young, college-educated, and seeking an urban lifestyle experience. Where once they lived – and would have worked – in suburbia, they are now living, working, dining and playing in the city their ancestors fled. It's a hipster hangout, and Detroit is suddenly hot and desirable. The Lonely Planet named Detroit number two in the “Best in Travel 2018.”
The Detroit resurgence is providing a challenge to suburban communities to either reinvent themselves, or stagnate.
“There are so many things motivating them to rethink how they've lived in the metro area for 30 years,” said architect and urbanist Mark Nickita, principal at Archive DS and a city commissioner in Birmingham. “Detroit's rise is coming from millennials and baby boomers who are demanding a lot of different things. There is a demand for authentic urban experiences – for walkable places, which Detroit and Birmingham are. There's also the full cultural experience in Detroit – all four sports teams are now down there, there's the opera (Michigan Opera Theater), symphony (Detroit Symphony Orchestra), Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit Historical Museum, science center (Michigan Science Center), and now they're talking about an aquarium focused on the riverfront. There is nothing like being in a big city, in the core. It's what draws people to Chicago.
“This is a new synergy in the region, and it's driven by two fundamental demographics,” Nickita continued. “Boomers are increasingly finding urban areas are where they want to be. They've lived their suburban lives, and now are spending weekends downtown. They're taking advantage of the city for the first time. And then there are millennials. They're all-in. They want to live in the center city, hang out, take advantage of all it has to offer, to take transit, ride bikes. They have the opportunity to do what they've done in other cities.
“And it's growing like wildfire. It's not a ‘will come.’ It's come,” Nickita said.
Robert Gibbs, an urban planner and retail consultant who is president of Gibbs Planning Group in Birmingham, agreed. “Twenty-somethings and fifty-somethings both want the same things,” he noted. “They want to walk to coffee shops and restaurants, and to live in a walkable environment, to walk to schools, libraries, offices, parks, and to see friends.”
Gibbs has helped spearhead numerous reinvented urban communities around the country, including for Birmingham, along with noted urbanist Andrés Duany of Miami, with Birmingham's 2016 Plan, which helped to envision a walkable city where residents and businesses could coexist, with the maxim of “work, live and play.” He and Duany were recently asked by the city of Birmingham to respond to a new request for proposal (RFP) for a new master plan proposal, the first for the entire city since 1980, and they have begun the process, which is due June 1. He is also involved with Troy Town Center, an effort by the city of Troy to create a walkable town center where their municipal complex currently is on Big Beaver Road near I-75. While forward thinking and desirable, according to acting Troy city manager Mark Miller, it is currently in a holding pattern.
“It was going a little fast for our residents,” Miller said, who said the goal given to Gibbs was to create a mixed use town center with alternate housing.
“We hear from a lot of our residents that there's not a lot of new housing for them when they want to sell their homes and downsize,” Miller said. “For baby boomers, everything is really more expensive than they want.”
Troy, along with Royal Oak, Birmingham and Rochester, are examples of Oakland County communities actively reinventing and recreating in the advent of Detroit's rise. For some communities, like Birmingham, the effort at reinvention has been ongoing for decades. Others, like Rochester, began in 2012, when city leaders recognized stagnation was the alternative. Royal Oak came to confront the realization that a city defined by its nightlife cannot survive in the long run nor stabilize its neighborhoods, and recognizing its inherent potential, made a concerted effort to go after office development, believing it will fortify its retail base as well. Troy, an example of post-World War II suburbia, like several other suburban communities, is at a sink-or-swim moment in time.
“The suburban areas that continue to just have large lots will become functionally obsolete,” Gibbs prognosticated. “However, inner ring suburbs will stay vital and popular. These smaller urban areas need to continue.”
Gibbs said that studies he's seen show that suburban areas, those with subdivisions with homes with larger lots and strip centers, perhaps office buildings, and little else, “will decline about 20 to 30 percent by 2030, and walkable communities will go up by 30 percent. It may be the biggest change in real estate.”
Another is a demand for rental properties for the same demographics – which not all communities are responding to, nor permitting, Gibbs said.
“I just saw a study from the Urban Institute in Washington D.C., that found that Oakland County will find itself with a shortage of 70,000 apartments by 2025,” he said. “What's odd is it is illegal to build apartments in most communities north of Royal Oak – so it's illegal to build what is wanted in these communities. They'll need to change their zoning.”
Or watch residents – and potential residents – flee elsewhere.
His company is seeing requests by numerous suburban communities to have urban plans developed for them for walkable town centers, to have zoning rewritten to recreate their densities, as they have done for Troy.
“We just did one for (the city of) Warren and for Westland, and we're talking to five others in Oakland County to create walkable town centers,” Gibbs said.
“When we plan a walkable community, we plan that you can have three or four housing cycles,” he said of the variety of housing unit styles a successful town center should offer. “You can have your first condo through your family house to senior housing – so you don't have to leave the community, and your friends and family.”
“There's a general interest in town centers, in a walkable context, just as there is a demand for traditional downtowns,” Nickita noted, with his firm currently working with Sterling Heights on a new master plan and the Lakeside Mall property to change its zoning from retail to mixed uses, to look into a town center as retail uses change.
“Troy, and the other post-war car-oriented suburban sprawl newer communities, these non-traditional communities were designed with wider streets, bigger blocks and separation of uses, none of which work together,” Nickita said. “They were zoned to be separate. You can't put an office near a store or a residence. It wasn't part of the zoning at that time. Now, Troy, Southfield, Novi, Warren, Sterling Heights, they're all thinking about how to become more pedestrian and people-oriented rather than car-oriented – more mixed-use, and more interactive.
“These communities are recognizing that they weren't built for these uses, and they're looking to be attractive for this changing demographic,” Nickita pointed out.
Troy, known to many for its retail behemoth Somerset Collection, has a residential population of about 84,000 people, and for many years had a vibrant office and industrial market.
“We did a Big Beaver corridor study in 2006, and what was apparent, with the exception of Somerset, it was an office building corridor,” said Troy's Miller, of a corridor study of the city which was completed in 2008, as the Great Recession was beginning.
Kmart's corporate headquarters had been at the corner of Big Beaver and Coolidge, but closed well over a decade ago, in 2005 or 2006, Miller said. In addition, further commercial space became available as General Motors left, along with numerous automotive suppliers.
“All the suppliers left – they didn't have to be here,” he said. “It became apparent we had way too many empty buildings – with office vacancies of about 40 percent.”
He said their Downtown Development Authority did a Quality Development Initiative (QDI) to ascertain appropriate mixed uses, and recommended building lower rise buildings in parking lots to counter empty parking lot space and stormwater retention. Office vacancies are now at about 16 percent.
Today, there are about 24 global subsidiaries in the city of Troy, “foreign-based companies from all over the world. We're competing for these in the office market, not with Detroit, but with Auburn Hills, Novi/Plymouth, Ann Arbor and Southfield,” Miller said. “We're centrally located by I-75.”
On the Maple Road corridor, he said, “We've allowed a lot more land uses, except single family. There's more industrial, and it's almost at full occupancy now. We still want a brew pub in the industrial area – we've always envisioned someone taking over an underutilized space and building something from scratch, something organic. There's a ton of restaurants there.”
However, they also saw that without a traditional downtown, and with Detroit a competitor for jobs, office space and residents “for the first time in a long time,” they sought to create a mixed use town center with alternate housing.
“We don't have anywhere for young people to live. We're trying to make it all walkable, to encourage the mixed use developments, with retail, office and apartments all in one space, to encourage apartments that they would want to live in,” Miller said.
As for the suburban sprawl of strip centers, Miller acknowledges, “the die is cast. It would be hard to change that. But we're trying to humanize the new ones, to build them closer to roads, to add bicycle racks and put more parking in the rear of stores.”
Rochester, a mature city that was first settled in 1817, with the Village of Rochester first formed in 1869, and a city in 1967. The city became an industrial center in the 19th century using the abundant water power of the Paint Creek and Clinton River. Over time, industries like a refinery for a sugar beets, a paper products company and the Western Knitting Mills factory closed or moved on, and the city became a pastoral, bucolic suburban area of 13,000 residents with a lovely Main Street.
In 2012, city leaders began the work of morphing from a sleepy town to a vibrant city. The first step was redesigning that Main Street, complete with road work that narrowed the street, adding bump outs and cross walks and recreating the streetscape, as well as adding two new parking structures. Their website now boasts, “A perfect mix of historic and hip, downtown Rochester attracts both local residents and visitors from across the state of Michigan. Downtown Rochester is home to more than 350 shops, salons, restaurants and professional service businesses; 85 percent of which are independent merchants. Downtown Rochester’s natural beauty is attributed to the waterways that surround the city and the abundant green space that three parks and two winding trails offer.”
Kristi Trevarrow, executive director for Rochester's Downtown Development Authority (DDA), said, “When we came out of the makeover in 2012, at that time, everyone said we would die. But everyone also said we want our downtown to survive.
“We lost a net of two merchants,” she said proudly. “We had some businesses open during construction, while some closed. It usually takes six months to a year for people to start coming back after a big construction project. We had already had a long construction project, and we said, we can’t wait that long. We finished (the road construction) one week before Lagniappe (a downtown Rochester Christmas festival meaning 'a little something extra), followed up with the Big Bright Light Show, and we had the biggest crowd we ever had.
“And we saw the trends continue right through '13.”
Trevarrow acknowledges it wasn't a fluke, but partially attributable to hard work on the part of the DDA. “We were out there every day talking to people about the construction, downtown and our events,” she said. “People said we remembered how much we love downtown, and we want to support it.”
Since 2013, downtown Rochester has maintained a retail occupancy rate of 97 percent.
A city known for its festivals and events, Trevarrow said she and her staff are constantly looking to reinvent and redo those events, as well as working with businesses and retailers on what interests them and how to help them be better businesses.
“We're big on retail retention. We're teaching them social media, marketing,” she said. “We're all in business together in our downtown, and we run our DDA like a business.”
In the last few years, development has followed the remade downtown, with the latest, a planned senior housing development, proposed for across from the Royal Park Hotel. To help it avoid growing pains, the city enlisted McKenna Associates to create Sustainable Rochester, a planning and development document, the result of a $53,000 project, which was accepted by the city council in April to guide the city as it grows. It is intended to be a toolkit to assist city staff, elected officials, decision makers and developers on any and all aspects of developing in Rochester, from environmental impact, mobility, fiscal strength, neighborhoods, downtown viability, and public services. Projects are scored on how well they do – or don't do – in order to help steer appropriate evaluations.
Royal Oak is working to reinvent itself as well, in light of the resurgence of Detroit. While Royal Oak was first incorporated as a village in 1891, it became a city in 1921 and grew quickly due to its proximity to Detroit. A city with a strong neighborhood base and a population of approximately 58,000, its downtown lost its way in the 1990s and 2000s, as it became known for its nightlife, restaurants and bars.
“For at least 30 years, it's been a great place after 5, but not from 9 to 5,” said Royal Oak Economic Development Manager Todd Fenton. “That's the opposite of a lot of cities.”
In 2012, city staff put together a downtown task force comprised of members of the community, community leaders, property owners and other interested parties, and said, “How do we create a blueprint for people in Royal Oak? How do we bolster retail efforts? We were adamant that we want Royal Oak to be an unparalleled place for eclectic shops and boutiques,” Fenton said.
The task force came to the conclusion that first they needed to create a daytime population, which would then ultimately shop and dine in the downtown, and to accomplish that, they should take unused or lesser used downtown property and create an incentive to developers to build Class A office buildings – a minimum of 180,000 square feet of Class A office space, which would bring in 1,000 new office workers each day into downtown Royal Oak.
Fenton was hired in 2014 with the job of taking that concept and turning it into a creative reality, which has been branded Rethink Royal Oak.
“I was tasked with how do we implement that need to build up the daytime population, and where do we put them?” he said.
He said he spent most of 2014 doing an inventory of all of the city-owned parking, notably of the surface lots, and identifying which of those would be great for building upon as office buildings.
“I published that and took it to brokers and anyone I could get it in front of – 'would you consider developing in our city?'” Fenton asked. “I went to Oakland County, national groups, even the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC) group. We found a lot of interest in doing projects in the city, and then figured out where to have people park – because we also wanted to have one-to-one parking replacement.”
Fenton said at that point, Royal Oak's main concern was creating access, not revenues, in an effort to create an accessible downtown for people to utilize.
Doug Etkin, principal of Etkin Real Estate Solutions, was the first to bite, snatching up the city-owned parking lot at 11 Mile and Center streets, at 150 W. Second Street, across from the Royal Oak Post Office, for a 74,000 square foot luxury office building that will be completed in late May/early June. The four-story building, which Etkin will move his company into as well, is completely leased and will bring approximately 350 people into the city every day.
“Royal Oak is the recipient of the new confidence that downtown Detroit has brought,” Etkin said. “Royal Oak has walkable urbanity, good parking at reasonable prices, has been of interest to firms that have to compete for staff members, and is a desirable alternative to Detroit.”
Etkin said they wanted to build a high-quality building in an area that wasn't as developed.
“We were the first company to come in under their new plan, to increase daytime density in a surface parking lot,” he said of the purchase of the surface lot. “We have the ability to park people during the day at reasonable rates, and we leased up so quickly because of the (parking) structure kiddy corner across.”
Unlike in Birmingham and Ann Arbor, at the current time, despite wanting to increase pedestrian traffic through office tenancy, Royal Oak is not requiring office buildings to have first floor retail space.
“We did not make a requirement for first floor retail, but said it was a preference,” Fenton said. “We knew we needed to get office workers in first. It would have been difficult to prioritize on retail without the numbers to support them.”
Etkin counters that his building is not on a main street. “Urban planning is best served when Main Street offers retail,” he said. “There are streets that serve (main) access, and others that offer ancillary services.”
Now, with close to 300,000 square feet of office space being built or committed, Fenton said the next round of buildings will likely be required to have first floor retail space. “Usually, office and national retail go hand-in-hand,” he said. “We want to focus and maintain our mom and pops, but a few nationals are good, too.”
The latest groundbreaking in the city will truly transform the downtown with a re-envisioned center square, as a public/private partnership between the city and Lansing-based Boji Group that will create a new municipal center, police station, six-story office building and a new public downtown park.
Located on the site of the city's current city hall, the new city center will be anchored by a new six-story building located in the parking lot adjacent to the current city hall. As a tax incentive, the city sold the land for the building to the Boji Group, a 25-year development company with an expertise in private/public partnerships across Michigan, for $1, and is providing an incentive payment of $5.5 million.
It's not a no-brainer for Boji, who is taking a risk as well. Boji held their groundbreaking for their building, their part of the massive project on May 15, without the commitment of any tenants for the new office project. The city will break ground this summer on a new city hall to be located where the city's farmers market is currently. Where the existing city hall is, Fenton said, will become a new police station. Once the new buildings are completed, “we will demolish the old and create a new city park. We think it will be a fantastic amenity (for workers and residents).”
They are also replacing parking and adding an additional 581 spaces with a new parking structure.
“It is the largest project for the city of Royal Oak. It will be transformational,” Fenton said. He noted that the construction, combined with road and infrastructure improvements, will incur “short term pain, but with infrastructure as a whole, it's needed. We're communicating to businesses and residents as a whole that Royal Oak is open, they can navigate around the construction, and we're Rethinking Royal Oak. It's a city that is not just for food and bars anymore.”
“We're very excited and very proud to be doing this project with Royal Oak,” Ron Boji said. “It's really a tribute to the city to realize what their deficiencies are and to move forward to correct them. Royal Oak is all about the play and live environment – they don't have the work. You need to be about the work, and ultimately, have live, work and play.”
Boji likes Royal Oak for a lot of the reasons people have always come to the city – “the ease of traveling to neighboring communities and other destinations. It's very central. Royal Oak has all of the avenues coming together, with I-75, I-96 and I-696, those main thoroughfares to downtown (Detroit), airports, Ann Arbor, Warren. It's easy access to tech companies and to travel.”
Besides adding office space and office workers and a beautiful public park, Boji noted that the new city complex will “create a tax base as well as we bring potentially 750 new people to eat, possibly live, shop, drink, patronize shops, and create tax revenue.”
The big Kahuna of urban ring communities is Birmingham, which began to reinvent itself over 20 years ago with public charrettes, community meetings and a massive reinterpretation of the city with its 2016 Plan in 1996, a revisioning of the downtown area created by Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Gibbs Planning Group, McKenna and other local partners, which examined every aspect of the city's downtown, from streetscapes to parks to alleys and passageways to parking and modality to retail and how best to re-invigorate walkability. Other than one area, the entire document has been implemented, which Bob Gibbs said he and Duany comment is very unusual and pleasing to them as urban planners.
“Birmingham changed their zoning from one-story to five-stories (in downtown) 20-some years ago, which precipitated hundreds and thousands of more multi-family units downtown,” Gibbs said. “Now many cities, like Ferndale, are allowing denser multi-family, and are permitting parking garages.”
As part of the 2016 Plan, zoning for new buildings mandated that they be mixed use and five-stories, with retail on the first floor, commercial/office on the second and third floors, and residential on at least the fifth floor, and often the fourth floor, with parking provided for residential units. It has reshaped much of the central business district, because not only is there more residential in the downtown, but there has been an enormous influx of square foot of commercial space and office workers.
In addition, in 2007, city planners took advantage of a change in the state's liquor license requirements and created a new bistro liquor license ordinance, with the aim of activating the city's street, creating greater walkability and visibility for retailers. A far less expensive option for restaurateurs, at $20,000 for the license, the city only offers two bistro licenses per year, with the specific criteria of small restaurants with no more than 65 seats, no more than 10 of which can be at a bar; there must be a specific – and approved – menu style which is approved by the city commission and cannot be significantly changed, even if the bistro is sold (once Mediterranean, for example, always Mediterranean), with windows that cover at least 70 percent of the front of the restaurant and open out, inviting the public in, with sidewalk or patio seating.
By all standards, the bistro liquor license has been an overwhelming success, and one that is being modeled all over the country. It has drawn thousands to downtown Birmingham, and has proven to be a sound economic incentive tool.
“The bistro program is an excellent example of a planning tool to bring business, because at one time, the quota liquor license (there are a maximum of 17) were going for $600,000 or $700,000 each,” Birmingham Planning Director Jana Ecker said. “We crafted the ordinance carefully, to have small establishments, with low key entertainment, and capped the number of seats.”
The city commission is in the process of making minor changes to the bistro ordinance, to permit a slight expansion of bistros in the city's Rail and Triangle districts, which are on the other side of Woodward Avenue, and extend all the way to Eton Road and the railroad tracks bordering Troy.
“We revised the bistro ordinance to encourage and attract activity in those areas,” Ecker said. “They add character and incentive to clean up and make those areas attractive, and to help keep the city viable in those areas.”
Ecker, along with city manager Joe Valentine, said continually focusing the conversation around walkability has been in the city's best interest, especially now with a re-emergent Detroit.
“We always talk about walkability, whether in a way to be convenient, in strategizing, in light of changes in retail, or as we talk about a re-emergent Detroit,” Valentine said.
Ecker said they continue to stay pro-active for both residents and businesses, redoing the city's multi-modal plan in 2012, which she said, “We were once a car-centric community, now we're about all forms of modalities. We looked at cars, pedestrians, cyclists, ADA-compliance, everything,” Ecker said. “It's allowed us to say, 'should there be bike rental programs? Charging stations?'”
The downtown is currently undergoing a major road construction project as it rebuilds several downtown city streets, including sewer and water infrastructure – some of which dates back to the 1890s – adding underground fiber-optics, more crosswalks, handicap-accessible sidewalks, and charging stations for mobile devices at benches and other locations.
“We continue to re-evaluate and modify things to keep up with technology and changing times,” Ecker said. “Forty years ago, 20 years ago, the emphasis wasn't on the downtown (but on the neighborhoods). Now it is. I don't think we've reinvented ourselves – we're working to continue to evolve. We've always had restaurants – now we have bistros. We always had the park – now Shain Park is better (after a recreation to make it a center square with a bandshell and other amenities).
“We are always working to evolve,” she continued. “We had good bones to start with, and we're always working to improve. We also are good with planning. We figure out what we want first – then we write ordinances to craft what we can get.”
Birmingham is figuring out what they want for the last piece of the puzzle of the 2016 Plan, for the N. Old Woodward parking structure and adjacent surface lot, which the 2016 Plan recommended creating a continuation of Bates Street, and ringing the street with retail and perhaps adding residential.
With the success of office usage in downtown Birmingham came a squeeze on parking. A study by an ad hoc parking committee led to the decision to issue an RFP to invite “creative and innovative development plans from qualified developers that will extend Bates Street from Willits to N. Old Woodward and redevelop the remainder of the site by constructing a parking facility that provides a minimum of 1,150 parking spaces currently on the N. Old Woodward/Bates Street site, introducing residential, commercial and/or mixed uses to create an activated, pedestrian-oriented urban streetscape and provide public access to the Rouge River and Booth Park to the north.”
Two qualified groups responded with detailed proposals, one called Woodward/Bates, comprised of Saroki Architecture (Victor Saroki) of Birmingham, Walbridge (John Rakolta, Jr.) of Detroit, Boji Group (Ron Boji), Lansing, and Robertson Bros. Homes (Paul C. Robertson Jr.), of Bloomfield. The other was submitted by TIR Equities, a Birmingham-based limited liability company incorporated by Ara Darakjian of Darakjian Jewelers on Willits Street.
Each responded with their interpretation of the RFP, but with decidedly different visions.
The Woodward/Bates proposal followed the RFP to the letter of the law, offering a five-story mixed use building on N. Old Woodward, and parking structure for almost 1,300 spaces plus nine on-street spaces on the extended Bates Street, and a public park/plaza with a fountain in the center, and a bridge to neighboring Booth Park. They stated the economic impact of their project at $166 million.
As described in their proposal, the 1,276 space structure they would build would have three levels below ground, and six levels above ground, with a first floor retail and optional residential above. The new five-story mixed-use building will have first floor retail on N. Old Woodward, two floors of office and two floors of residential above.
“This building is directly in front of the parking structure and will serve as a gateway for the Bates Street extension and provide more connectivity for the downtown walking/shopping patterns,” the proposal stated. The Bates Street extension would be pedestrian-friendly with extra wide sidewalks and retail and the public plaza with the foot bridge to Booth Park “will be an active urban space with urban furniture, landscaping and a play/fountain water feature. It will be a space for gathering, activities, cafes and relaxation.”
In addition, there are also other proposed buildings that could be options for the site, including another parking structure that could be integrated into the other structure with three more floors of residential; a Bates/Rouge River residential mixed use building, five stores which follows the shape of the street with first floor retail, two floors of office and two floors of residential, with two levels of parking, fronting on Willits Street “and provide more connectivity and activity in this part of downtown. A proposed walking 'via' will be developed on the east side between this new building and the existing (Google) building to the east.”
The TIR Equities proposal looked at the RFP, and as Darakjian said, “I met and exceeded every criteria.” The RFP became a launch pad for creating a new development along N. Old Woodward which is both stunning – and perhaps too bold for Birmingham, some say.
TIR Equities hired Robert AM Stern Architects in New York City, known for designing some of the tallest skyscrapers in New York, with a modernist architectural style.
“He's the only one in the world with the international experience to do justice to this kind of development,” Darakjian said. “I brought someone who has the experience and vision for this site, who will solidify the reputation of Birmingham for generations to come. It's the future we're looking at – not today.”
The future, as Stern and Darakjian envision it, has a four-level underground parking structure along with some on-street parking for 1,781 vehicles, and a 15-story mixed use building at its centerpiece, some other adjacent buildings and a center plaza, which would offer 60,000 square feet of retail, 25,000 square feet of office space, and 371 units of residential, which Darakjian said is designed to attract 25 to 40-year-olds.
“We want a younger demographic, and we'll have market rents for sure. Each of these people will eat out and shop in Birmingham,” Darakjian.
Darakjian said 80 percent of the stores and restaurants will be national shops, with stores needing to abide by standardized hours and protocols.
A concern of this proposal, which Darakjian said will generate $300-plus million in revenues, is multi-fold for the city, first of which is the 15-story building, in a city with a five-story height limit. Darakjian said that only applies to privately-owned buildings, and he is proposing the city own it, with a tax increment finance (TIF) district to help finance the development, which staff labeled, in essence, a subsidy by the city, which the RFP specifically said would not be part of this development.
“Every city also reserves the right to change that. The Birmingham ordinance has a height restriction on private property, but not on city property, and this is city-owned property,” Darakjian countered.
“The RFP...makes clear that no city subsidies will be made available for a potential development. The TIR Equities team indicated during their interview process that the proposal they submitted would not cost the city...Staff inquired further, and learned that as part of the proposal, TIR Equities anticipated the use of a Tax Increment Finance district and revenues from the parking structures that the city could use to pay for the development,” stated the staff evaluation. “Additionally, the parking revenue assumed $3.5 million in annual revenue to support this payback. The current structure with half of the proposed spaces is expected to generate $1.2 million in revenue. At best, staff projects a doubling of revenue (approximately $2.6 million).”
Another concern for some city staff and city leaders is the potential of the development to become its own isolated destination within Birmingham, “a mini-Ren Cen,” said one city commissioner, referring to Detroit's Renaissance Center.
It's an idea that Darakjian doesn't dissuade from. “It is it's own development. It becomes a neighborhood, an enclave, rather than just a street, so it becomes a focal point of downtown,” he said. “It solidifies downtown Birmingham in the marketplace. It will not take people away from Maple and Old Woodward – it will generate more traffic and more people coming to Birmingham – there will be people from all over the world coming to see this world-class designed enclave.”
A May meeting of the ad hoc parking committee, tasked with recommending the plans forward, preferred the Woodward/Bates proposal to the city commission, feeling the TIR Equities proposal did not meet the RFP, and that it was too ambitious for the site.
While Darakjian is continuing to work on persuading the city and business leaders of his vision, Birmingham has a history of not letting developers dictate development, but rather taking the lead from city leadership, planning and zoning. It's unlikely to be any different this time around, as they look to cross the last piece on their list from the 2016 Plan and move forward with a new citywide master plan process.
“The whole concept was in the 2016 Plan, and it's the biggest element left – to add more public parking and connect Old Woodward and Bates,” city planner Ecker said. “The giant surface parking lot is not adding anything. Then, it's great to add more development and vitality, but it depends on the scope of the project. You go to your master plan and see what direction it gives you.”
It's a process that has done well by Birmingham for over two decades, no matter what other communities, large or small, have