Resources & Research

The New Placemaking Rethinking Corridors with Adaptive Re-Use Projects

By Mark Nickita, AIA

Whether in a downtown, an industrial or manufacturing district, or a commercial corridor, large vacancies and abandonment have become a common reality in real estate markets in almost every American city. There is increasing interest in the intensification of existing communities, traditional core cities, and inner-ring suburbs, which have an established infrastructure, plentiful resources, and are well located. This is especially true when the cost of a long-distance commute is becoming a factor in lifestyle decisions due to the increased price of gas. Often municipalities, land owners, and developers overlook the potential of existing buildings and underutilized parcels, especially as a means to create the all important sense of place. Many of these areas have little hope of reestablishing their former uses and occupancies with the same kind of tenants.

By repositioning them, municipalities can guide new development that can transform outdated and inefficient structures into fresh and exciting places. A plan for repositioning an out-dated district through alternative zoning, an overlay of existing zoning, or a plan encouraging mixed-use and flexible zoning, all can be transformative tools that can have an extensive impact.

A repositioned building or group of buildings, once established, can become the basis of a vibrant and thriving district or area and a significant asset to adjacent areas and neighborhoods.

Transforming Vacant Space along a Suburban Corridor
In most American cities and inner suburbs, there are numerous empty buildings along commercial and industrial vehicle-oriented corridors. In some cases, too many to count—dozens of buildings with hundreds of thousands of square feet with little chance of filling them anytime soon. In many cases, municipalities and building owners are hoping to refill this space with the same types of uses that have been in demand for the past many decades. That is, unfortunately, an unlikely prospect. Are we to watch them sit? Are we hoping to fill them with something else? Will they be demolished with the hopes of a new structure to be built? Maybe all of the above will occur, but there will likely be a demand for something very different. Flexible space is valuable, flexible zoning is important, and location and walkability all play a key role in providing value to these structures.

Along heavily traveled highway corridors, there are great challenges regarding potential reuses of the structures. They often include an office area, high ceilings and open rough industrial spaces, or large interior open space structures, often adjacent to large parking areas. Unfortunately, they also lack “curb appeal,” amenities, or walkability—because they are in single-use areas and are often without sidewalks. Can they be successfully re-utilized and repositioned to accommodate the needs of the contemporary business world and changing lifestyles? The answer is yes, but not without a real transformation. The vision for the future and a buy-in from municipalities and the development community can lead to a prosperous future for these “placeless” places.

Citywide Efficiency Strategies—Filling In Development Versus Building Out
The Detroit region has many of these outmoded commercial and industrial corridors—all of which lack a cohesive vision. There have been some initiatives to change the face and fate of these corridors through reuse and repositioning. Gratiot Avenue in Clinton Township is a classic example. Miles of highway structures, mostly built between 1950 and 1980, have seen better days. The one-story structures of various sizes work independently of each other with limited sidewalk connections and a mish-mash of parking configurations. A path for repositioning structures and intensifying uses along the corridor comes with a recently completed vision plan that identifies incremental solutions that can lead to creating a place where one does not exist. The vision plan includes flexibility in zoning, parking, height, use, and scale variations. Also included is an emphasis on walkability and an increase in accommodations for pedestrians and bicycles while building on the existing assets of the corridor.

Trio Building in Ferndale, MI
The Trio Building in Ferndale is being transformed by adding three floors on top of the existing two and creating a mixed-use project.

Another example of corridor rethinking is along Woodward Avenue in Ferndale. Many years ago, city leaders observed opportunities for more intensified development along the commercial corridor that runs directly through the center of the city. They looked at ways to encourage existing buildings to upgrade and new buildings to be built. An example of a typical underutilized structure that was designed to incorporate the city’s revised ordinances is the recently vacant 1930s, two-story Trio Building. The building is being transformed by adding three floors on top of the existing two floors and creating a mixed-use project with retail, office, and residential. The new floors were designed to be built as a lightweight structure and to be placed on top of the original two-story building. Additionally, a green roof was designed as an amenity for the building residents and for efficient water filtration and run-off. This project is an example of how the revised zoning led the development community to rethink the underutilized existing structures in a completely different manner. The new zoning embraces flexible and diverse uses that include office, market-rate residential, senior housing, institutional, medical, and recreational—much of which can be innovatively accommodated within redeveloped existing buildings.

Additionally, overall corridor transformations are being pursued along metro Detroit’s Eight Mile Boulevard and north Woodward Avenue. An Eight Mile framework plan, completed within the last couple of years, illustrates guidelines for walkability and physical enhancements for 27 miles of the corridor. The plan identifies initiatives that encourage the coordination of 17 municipalities to work toward a unified vision, benefitting them each individually as well as the overall region. In regards to Woodward Avenue, elected officials and other civic leaders in five communities along the corridor are currently engaged in a dialogue that will see the repositioning of underutilized structures and infrastructure into a highly efficient and sustainable “linear city.” This strategy envisions a new “place” that is multiple miles in length with numerous nodes along the way, all using the existing structures in a fresh and innovative way. The new North Woodward Avenue will incorporate alternative transit options, enhanced non-motorized and pedestrian infrastructure, more mixes of uses, and higher density than the low scale, vacant land scenario that has been its identity for over half a century. It is a model of cooperation and the intensification of physical assets that may become a prototype for corridor development throughout the state.

Where Are We Going with Development?
With the development and construction industry still in turmoil, the future of suburban growth and development is in a nebulous state. The credit market, or the ability to fund projects, has become one of the industry’s biggest challenges. Projects must be smaller, incremental, and have a strong demand before they can get the required backing for developers to pull the trigger. It is clear that efficient development is the path to the future, and sustainability is best achieved when utilizing existing buildings. With sensitivity to people-oriented development, new places can be established from a foundation of repositioning these structures in unlikely situations and locations. With certain initiatives in place, making abandoned and underutilized buildings into contributing elements that enhance a municipality is not only possible, but has the potential to establish amazing places that are truly worth caring about for the long term.

Important Actions and Strategies
• Think outside the box—what you did in the past will likely not work in the future.

• Flexibility is key—allow for flexible, spatially diverse options for the users, and be flexible
in phasing and growth strategies.

• Mixed-use approaches will provide the best potential for leasing and build
a stronger viability and use.

• Get on the same page—multiple involved parties should be in sync with each other—municipalities, owners, users, leasing agents, etc.

Mark Nickita, AIA, is the mayor of Birmingham and president of Archive DS. You may contact him at 313-963-6687 or [email protected].

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