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How Thoughtful Urban Design Practices Can Repair Neighborhoods

As Detroit seeks to reclaim its status as a world-class city, the importance of mixed-use neighborhoods will be at the forefront of the revival to ensure the city can recapture the decades of population loss and patterns of single-family home sprawl. It will be critical to apply thoughtful urban design practices to these neighborhoods as a way to redefine city living and pave a road for inclusive housing. 

By maximizing the relationship between building program and the surrounding urban fabric, we can create more sustainable buildings that provide a more supportive environment for all neighborhood residents.

ROSSETTI’s Director of Urban Planning, Amy Chesterton, AICP, RLA takes a look at six ways a mindful approach to mixed-use neighborhood planning can help solve some of the issues plaguing the Motor City today.

INVEST IN ACTIVATING THE GROUND FLOOR 

One of the greatest challenges in tackling a new urban development or renovation is how to activate the ground floor to ensure the building engages the surrounding community. Coupled with real market data, it’s important to be realistic out of the gate: even the most robust economies in the world can’t rely solely on retail to fill all the ground floor space.

A critical first step is developing an understanding of which building facades should be the highest priority for the ground floor activation based on the adjacent streets and their connection to the greater neighborhood. Where possible, building facades along priority streets should include active retail. Building facades along secondary streets can be filled with less active uses, such as service or residential amenities like gyms, leasing offices, or bike rooms. 

Henry Ford Health System Detroit Pistons Performance Center | ROSSETTI

Due to cost and spatial limitations, developers often want to build a parking podium with residential units above it. However, the resulting product can be dull, lifeless places for the pedestrian, no matter how much money is spent on landscaping. The units above may lease when they are new, but the lack of street-level activity will eventually result in a limited sense of community. In ten years, Chesterton suspects, it will be significantly devalued. 

Incorporating the front door is another effective way to activate the ground floor on secondary streets, where retail and service amenities are less viable. In a walk-up residential building similar to The Coe in Detroit’s West Village, there will be pumpkins on the stoops in October and wreathes on the doors in December, people coming and going on a daily basis, and the potential for chance encounters on the street; this sort of activity goes a long way toward generating a real and lasting sense of community.

UNBUNDLE PARKING 

In Detroit, developers are just beginning to unbundle parking spaces from rent. This will continue to be important in solving renters’ dependency on cars because it forces conscious decisions to be made about the costs and benefits to vehicle use and ownership. Is a parking spot really worth buying? Since Detroit has its share of public transit woes, being completely carless here can be difficult; conversely, since the city has rebounded from bankruptcy and continues to strengthen its core, the reasons to travel into the suburbs shrink every day.

It may also be wiser for the developer to completely rethink parking due to cost. In Instead of Free Parking, Prof. Donald Shoup found on-street parking to be much more beneficial than off-street parking. He writes: “An off-street parking space costs between $3,000 and $27,000 to build, and about $500 a year to maintain and manage. On-street parking is more efficient and can bring in as much as $300,000 per space in annual revenues.”

Unbundling parking from the cost of housing will continue to promote other viable transit options and provide more choice in transportation options overall.

FIND THE MISSING MIDDLE 

The “missing middle” is a term coined by Daniel Parolek to describe the category of housing between detached single-family homes and high-rise apartments, which includes townhouses, duplexes, mid-rise apartments, and live/work complexes – all of which contribute to creating the density needed to support services, amenities, transit, and produce a walkable environment.

Brush and Watson Residential Development, Concept | Woodborn Partners, ROSSETTI, and Marshall Moya Design

Historically, Detroit has been comprised of low-density single-family homes. By understanding which housing typologies are missing and which new typologies may be appropriate to a given context, the housing gaps can be filled effectively and in keeping with a community’s existing fabric.

CONNECT TO THE GRID 

It’s crucial for a new development to look back and see how the streets once connected to one another, especially in the age of undoing “superblocks.” Zooming out can provide valuable perspective on how a parcel once functioned as part of a broader neighborhood. As every new development attempts to fit into an existing ecosystem, you have to ask if it will be good for the surrounding community and how it will physically and socially affect what’s around it.

By maximizing connections, the ultimate goal is to create housing where residents are able to meet all or most of their daily needs for amenities, services, transit, employment, and recreation within a reasonable walking distance.

Brush and Watson Residential Development, Concept | ROSSETTI, Marshall Moya Design, Woodborn Partners

Of course, there are multiple factors that lend themselves to the site selection, and it’s the position of the designer to uncover the physical and social connections. Site selection comes down to price, and the site is selected based on where the developer can find the most desirable location for the best price. By understanding the site’s connection to transportation options, jobs, and community amenities, we can reconnect to the grid in a meaningful way.

CAREFULLY EVALUATE THE VALUE OF SOCIAL AMENITIES

In a new study by Newmark Knight Frank, it was found that apartment buildings with a high number of social amenities typically sell for less than buildings with fewer social amenities. The study, which zoned in on the Washington D.C. Metro area, surveyed 124 buildings built in the past three years against every building sold in the past five years.

Detroit Riverfront Development, Concept | ROSSETTI

This was a shocking conclusion for the researchers, who thought that social amenities like fitness centers and pools allowed buildings to sell for higher prices. Greg Leisch, the Newmark Knight Frank Senior Managing Director of Market Research, believes the installation, square footage, and maintenance costs of social amenities are the major factors of this deduction. However, it should be noted that only the building’s sale price was affected negatively – rent prices were still 4% higher than average. 

Contrariwise, buildings with more service amenities, like concierges and pet services, sold for higher percentages. It is important to evaluate the costs and benefits of various social and service amenities of each project to target the audience/market, and discuss these with the developer. By helping the developer evaluate the range of benefits, we can help them create building components that have a lasting value to the people they serve.

AUTHENTICITY IS KEY

Development often occurs in ten-year aesthetic cycles. Anything done in a certain fashion eventually becomes dated. Therefore, it’s better to use an incremental design strategy or utilize a number of different yet complementary architectural styles for new development. Of course, it would be most valuable for historic buildings to be saved and incorporated into the strategy to add to the architectural variety. What’s going to make the difference with new development is that part of it feels integrated with the surrounding neighborhood and collectively reinforces the established identity.

QLINE Stations | ROSSETTI

To allow variance within boundaries, the City Modern development in Detroit’s historic Brush Park neighborhood is a good example of integrating 400-plus new units into the existing fabric. The planning team created a framework that allows the designers and architects to bring their own style whilst maintaining a set of form-based standards for the new townhomes, carriage homes, duplettes, flats, and the restoration of existing historic homes.

In conclusion, it’s important to invest in thinking critically on the application of contextual urban design practices before diving into the architecture - finding ways to create pedestrian-friendly buildings that integrate into existing neighborhoods. Developers, along with the community, will find that their buildings seamlessly maintain their value as they age.

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Amy Chesterton, AICP, RLA, is the Director of Urban Planning at ROSSETTI. She has over 20 years of experience in leading large-scale real-estate developments, mixed-use districts, adaptive reuse, and strategic planning projects. An inspiring team leader, Amy melds design and economic development to create plans for highly livable, vibrant, and successful communities. Amy has led dozens of planning projects in the city of Detroit.