May – June 2017 Commentary

Troy Town Center
Illustration courtesy of Gibbs Planning Group Inc.

Urban Development – Downtown 2.0

Like many suburban cities, Troy has longed for a downtown district that would provide a gathering space for residents and visitors, complement existing offerings like a family aquatics center, and serve as an economic generator for merchants and businesses.

Inside the Numbers

While most urban squares grew from a port or a rail depot — Detroit, Royal Oak, Birmingham, and Pontiac are prime examples — other cities weren’t as fortunate. Still, Troy today has the same economic engine that propelled the buildup of downtown districts decades ago: namely, a dense concentration of people who can easily come and go via a major transportation corridor.

Since the middle of the 20th century, the freeway has proved to be the most efficient means to transport people and goods within a given region. In Troy, then, the convergence of I-75 and Big Beaver Road is a natural starting point for planning, developing, and building a downtown district. “It’s the epicenter of the city,” says Robert Gibbs, president of Gibbs Planning Group in downtown Birmingham.

As the city’s forefathers acquired more than 125 acres of land at the northeast corner of I-75 and Big Beaver for a civic center, the vision was to one day, when demand warranted, develop an urban enclave of close-knit brownstones, stores, restaurants, and other amenities. After years of planning, the vision for the Troy Town Center was unveiled late last year.

It is expected that the Troy Town Center will have the ability to attract residents young and old who don’t care to live in a four-bedroom home with an attached garage. The plan also benefits from hindsight, with its ability to avoid the types of development mistakes made in other suburban downtown districts, which have suffered from inconsistent zoning laws, cookie-cutter architecture, limited parking, exposed utility lines, (electric and telephone poles), and a lack of parking spaces.

“If you look at downtown Birmingham, the reason it’s arguably the most successful downtown district in the state is because there’s available parking,” says Gibbs, who designed the Troy Town Center. “If you look across Woodward Avenue to the east, where Birmingham has its emerging Triangle District, it has been slow to develop because there’s no parking deck. If Birmingham builds a parking deck in that area — there are five decks in the downtown area — the Triangle District will take off.”

We stuck to who we were at Motown, and the world came around.

— Berry Gordy, Founder, Motown Records

While Gibbs is a proponent of mass transit, he understands the reality that metro Detroit’s transportation mode of choice is the automobile, and with it comes the need to park conveniently. But, he says, that doesn’t mean parking decks will be needed forever.

The emergence of autonomous vehicles in the coming years will reduce the need for personal cars as well as parking decks. “Troy City Center, as
envisioned, has parking decks that are bordered all around (the development) and back up to four- to five-story residential buildings,” Gibbs says. “As demand for the decks wanes, as long as they’re designed correctly and at the proper height, they can easily be converted into homes and storefronts.”

Transportation – Plan Ahead

If there’s one lesson that’s been learned from fluctuating traffic patterns at the Ambassador Bridge, it’s that the federal government controls the rate of cars and trucks that are inspected for contraband. If there are too few inspection booths, or not enough federal manpower, traffic will slow to a crawl as the available inspectors go about determining who and what to inspect.

As the United States and Canada make plans to begin construction on the $4.5-billion Gordie Howe International Bridge two miles west of the Ambassador Bridge, the success of the project will hinge on installing the proper number of inspection booths on both sides of the border, as well as providing the necessary amount of personnel. For the sake of traffic efficiency, the new bridge must get the formula right on the number of booths and staffing levels.

In various lawsuits that have yet to be resolved, the owner of the Ambassador Bridge has claimed that the U.S. and Canada purposely limited inspections to make their case for building the new bridge. As the legal cases make their way through the court system, it’s clear the U.S. and Canada have plenty of work to do before the first vehicles traverse the new bridge. 

Already, the opening of the crossing has been delayed, as the condemnation of land for the project has taken longer than projected. Officials from both the U.S. and Canada say the new bridge will reduce traffic, limit air pollution, and keep trucks off local streets, but whether that will actually happen remains to be seen. 

Golf – Fore Gone Sale

Across the region, counties and municipalities that own golf courses should consider selling the recreational facilities to the private sector or educational institutions. While government entities argue the ownership of a golf course ensures that green fees are kept at affordable levels compared to fees at clubs operated by the private sector, they ignore the proven track record of supply and demand. If play drops, privately owned golf courses will lower prices or offer incentives to attract more golfers.

Municipalities also argue that publicly owned courses provide an affordable means to teach the game to young students — but again, if the price of golf rises to a level that is out of the reach of parents, nonprofit entities or foundations can provide funding to subsidize the participation of students. 

Consider the City of Detroit, which owns four municipal courses that, in recent years, have been operated by private companies. As the city notes, the courses are barely profitable, and taxpayers would be better served if the municipal workers who oversee contracts, finances, and other aspects of course operations were reassigned to benefit a larger swath of the community, not just golfers.

Nothing lasts forever, and municipalities, over time, are on the hook to invest in capital improvements. Why should taxpayers be held responsible for such upgrades? Rather than continue to subsidize an activity for a limited number of people, municipalities should consider divesting golf courses from their operations and allow the private sector to provide recreational services based on the principles of supply and demand. 

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