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Is It A Good Place?

Smart Growth, say top executives, is crucial to Michigan’s competitiveness

October 3, 2002 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Young adults, 25 to 34 years old, are leaving Michigan at a rate twice the national average. Grand Rapids is one city in Micihigan that is working very hard to buck the trend by encouraging an active street life.

Grand Rapids, MI — In perhaps the most visible evidence yet that curbing sprawl and investing in cities is considered a mainstream idea in Michigan, the state Chamber of Commerce and its local partners held a two-day conference here last month that focused on the link between thriving metropolitan centers and a secure economy.

In essence, said the top executive at the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and other prominent business specialists, a state’s economic competitiveness is based on its quality of life. In order for Michigan to strengthen its ability to compete with other states — especially those in New England, the Upper Great Lakes, and the Pacific Northwest — Michigan must improve its standing as a vibrant place to live, work, and play.

"Attracting a skilled workforce is a real challenge," said Jim Barrett, president and chief executive officer of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce. "People want access to good public services at a reasonable price, quality K-12 education, safety, and recreational opportunity. So if you can’t say that places like metropolitan Grand Rapids, Detroit, or northern Michigan offer a good lifestyle, frankly, you can’t attract the employees necessary to compete in the international market. Business is keenly aware of quality of life issues."

Speakers at the annual Future Forum conference, sponsored by a coalition of the state’s local chambers of commerce, called on policy makers to reverse urban abandonment by eliminating taxpayer funded subsidies for sprawl, coordinating land development planning between cities and neighboring communities, and fixing up existing public institutions, streets, and parks.

A Gubernatorial Campaign Issue
The same call to arms is echoed by one of the major party Michigan gubernatorial candidates, who has seized on improving the quality of life in Michigan as the basis for sustaining the state’s economy. Democrat Jennifer Granholm issued a detailed proposal earlier this year that calls for investing in urban neighborhoods, improving public transit, stepping up environmental enforcement, conserving farmland, and curbing sprawl.

Republican Dick Posthumus has avoided any substantive discussion about curbing sprawl and has publicly expressed concerns about the affect of new land use restrictions on private property rights. Mr. Posthumus has, however, proposed strengthening state law to safeguard the quality and quantity of Michigan’s fresh water.

Population trends suggest Michigan cities may be losing the competition for new talent because they do not have the advantage of mass transit options, like those offered by San Francisco, or welcoming waterfront walks, like the one in Baltimore. The 2000 Census revealed that 25 to 34 year olds — a coveted demographic in the new economy workforce that gravitates toward attractive cities ripe with jobs — are leaving Michigan at a rate twice the national average. The trend, Mr. Barrett said, is one reason why restoring and maintaining Michigan’s neglected urban areas has become a top priority for people across the political spectrum.

What’s needed, conference presenters said, is a coherent policy for reviving the state’s cities. The need is so significant that the state’s business community has joined religious, environmental, and social interests groups in calling for stronger metropolitan regions. Public opinion polls also confirm that a majority of citizens believe that Michigan cities are in rough shape and improving their condition should be a focus for state and local leaders.

Need: An Urban Policy
That is a tall order. Michigan has lacked an urban policy for half a century and a question lingers as concerned voters prepare to elect a new governor: Is either of the major party candidates resolved to bring progressive leadership to bear on Michigan’s glaringly obvious, complex, and increasingly costly urban dilemma? The answer, experts contend, will be found in nothing less than policy initiatives that overhaul the way state and local governments conduct business.

Despite all its natural beauty, Michigan harbors some of the nation’s most neglected urban environments. Rivers in Jackson and other south central cities flow through inaccessible concrete chutes. Vacant lots in Detroit are marred by collapsed buildings and rubble piles. And dilapidated inner-city schools in Grand Rapids and other cities close their doors while sparkling new suburban facilities throw out the welcome mat.

"The condition of Michigan’s cities is a direct reflection of the state’s inability to conceive and sustain an effective urban policy agenda that creates healthy human settlements," said Rex LaMore, a professor of urban planning at Michigan State University and state director of the Community and Economic Development program at the university’s Center for Urban Affairs. "We have no design plan for our cities."

To some extent, the state of Michigan’s cities has become an issue in the 2002 Michigan gubernatorial campaign. Democrat Jim Blanchard was the first candidate to promote a new vision for Michigan cities. Mr. Blanchard said the state will fail to retain talented workers and compete successfully in the global marketplace unless its metropolitan areas rein in sprawl, eliminate cultural barriers, expand public transportation choices, and upgrade fundamental services such as streets, sewers, and schools. (See: A Rare Call For Stronger Cities http://www.mlui.org/projects

The Blanchard campaign, however, did not survive the August primary. But the Future Forum demonstrated that Mr. Blanchard’s basic ideas about expanding economic opportunities through urban revitalization continue to resonate with important constituencies, especially business leaders.

Democrat Jennifer Granholm, who is leading her Republican opponent by 12 points in the most recent polls, picked up the theme as well. She says that Michigan’s cities must be vibrant centers for homes, jobs, and culture. Her urban plan includes tearing down abandoned buildings to reinvigorate inner-city real estate markets, establishing a special fund to provide loans for redevelopment in targeted urban areas, expanding public transit, and giving priority to the repair of existing roads and sewer systems. Ms. Granholm was invited to the Future Forum but did not attend.

Republican Dick Posthumus talks generally about a city’s four needs, which he defines as affordable housing, safe streets, quality jobs, and excellent schools. Mr. Posthumus says that reviving Detroit for the 2006 Superbowl is a top priority, but he has yet to release a plan that specifically addresses the urban ills affecting many of the state’s metro regions. Mr. Posthumus attended the Future Forum and spoke briefly at a legislative reception.

Mr. LaMore said both candidates focus on the right issues. But he does not believe either candidate is ready to confront root urban problems, such as racism and concentrated poverty. Such out-of-the-box thinking, he said, is critical if Michigan’s cities hope to shed their rust belt image and establish an effective voice at the state Capitol.

"The structure of state government simply is not conducive to successful cities," Mr. LaMore said. "It is easy to point out the many urban ills. The challenge is to offer effective solutions."

Michigan is Sprawling Fast

Bruce Katz, director of the Center for Urban and Metropolitan Policy at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, also was a featured speaker at the Chamber’s Future Forum. He suggested that policy makers in Michigan shift the notion of revitalization away from perceived quick fixes, such as stadiums and casinos, and toward projects that focus on solving the basics of the urban experience.

Mr. Katz said effective strategies strive to breathe new life into existing public spaces such as universities and hospitals, nurture neighborhoods that welcome a diverse range of cultures and incomes, increase wealth for residents, and promote growth within the metropolitan area.

"Michigan is growing remarkably fast at the urban fringe," Mr. Katz said, noting the state consumed approximately 364,000 acres of land between 1992 and 97 — ninth in the U.S. — despite being one of the slowest growing states in the nation.

"One result," he explained, "is low density urban areas, where residential is separate from commercial, commercial is separate from industrial, everything is separate from retail, and people basically are dependent on the car for everything. We are not building communities in many of these metro places and it is causing a whole range of problems."

Mr. Katz noted that effective leadership from the governor’s office is, perhaps, the most important factor in changing traditional development policies and guiding new growth in a way that invigorates inner cities. In New Jersey, for example, former Republican Governor Christine Todd Whitman revamped building codes to favor the renovation and repair of existing structures over new construction.

And in Maryland, the birthplace of Smart Growth, Democratic Governor Parris Glendening ended state subsidies for projects such as new roads that facilitate sprawl out into the countryside and instead funneled those investments into existing downtowns.

"At the state and federal level there are a whole range of policies and programs that essentially tilt the playing field away from older communities and toward the development of new communities," Mr. Katz said. "What we’ve really said is build out, build new, and abandon old."

Michigan does have one metropolitan region that is effectively joining public investments, new zoning, and penetrating leadership to improve the urban environment. It is here in Grand Rapids.

"Our city has embarked on some significant efforts to get people to think about regional solutions to our urban problems," said Grand Rapids Mayor John Logie, an independent who has led the Smart Growth movement here. "Done carefully, it is possible to achieve break-through results without requiring changes in state law."

Grand Rapids’ recent history, though, reveals the risks inherent in any attempt to significantly alter metropolitan policy, form, and design. The last push to rehabilitate inner-city America — the Urban Renewal movement of the 1950’s and 60’s — almost killed this city along the banks of the Grand River. The massive demolition of historic structures and the razing of entire neighborhoods was followed by the exclusive construction of towering office buildings and an interstate highway link that sped people past downtown, not into it.

Promise in Grand Rapids
Today’s movement to revive cities is much different, much more human-scale, and Grand Rapids quickly has embraced the new thinking. Local leaders soon will open the first phase of a public commons that, when finished, will be nearly two and a half times larger than New York City’s Central Park.

Grand Rapids also continues to buck metropolitan trends in Michigan by adding new housing downtown. And the city has worked closely with private investors to improve local museums, restaurants, riverfront walks, and entertainment venues. It also has forged partnerships with surrounding communities around regional transit and sewer service to advance a coordinated approach to future growth.

Success is measured by counting people, said Mayor Logie, and Grand Rapids remains one of only two Michigan cities experiencing real population growth. The city’s ability to be an attractive place to live and work, however, is directly related to available funding.

Mayor Logie told attendees at the Future Forum that the next logical step is to permit voluntary consolidation of other basicgovernmental services — a move that would require new state legislation.

"We have 47 local units of government in the area," Mr. Logie said. "In our regular elections, we elect a total of 637 people to run the county, cities, townships, and villages. That’s exactly 100 more than it takes to run the whole United States. In the aggregate, they spend over $650 million each year. If we could reduce costs for each government by 5 percent, we could free up over $30 million year after year in taxes that already are being collected."

Freeing up such large sums of money, Logie argues, would relieve the pressure on state government to subsidize local needs. It also could empower urban residents and leaders to begin addressing long-ignored metropolitan problems and cultivating a new spirit of community in once world-class cities like Detroit.

Andy Guy, who is chronicling the rise of Grand Rapids as a center of Smart Growth innovation in the Midwest, is a journalist and organizer in the Institute’s Grand Rapids field office. Reach him at andy@mlui.org, or 616-308-6250.

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