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Survey Finds Growing Support For Smart Growth Measures

Summit in southeast Michigan considers regional strategies

November 10, 2003 | By Charlene Crowell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Pat Owen

Leaders attending a regional redevelopment conference in Detroit were pleased to hear new evidence that Michigan citizens strongly support their efforts to curb sprawl and revitalize cities.

DETROIT — A new statewide public opinion survey by Wayne State University has identified a sharp increase in support for directing state spending for transportation and other economic development toward city centers instead of outward to the countryside. The survey by the university’s Center for Urban Studies found that 84 percent of those polled favored “giving funding priorities to infrastructure in existing communities rather than encouraging new growth in the countryside.”

Presented by Wayne urban studies Professor Lyke Thompson, the survey of 775 adults also found that 80 percent of respondents agreed “we need more communities in Michigan where people can walk from their homes to their stores and offices,” and that 80 percent strongly disagreed with the statement that “Michigan cities are deteriorating and cannot be improved regardless of how money might be spent.”

The findings were made public at the Southeast Michigan Summit on Regional Redevelopment, a one-day conference held on Wayne State’s campus on October 24. The survey conclusions are consistent with other public opinion measures taken by a host of business, government, and policy organizations about the consequences of sprawling patterns of development in Michigan, and how to reduce them. This recent research, however, indicates a striking increase in public support for stronger government action to rein in sprawl and simultaneously strengthen the state’s cities.

The survey, taken this past summer, found majority support for protecting farmland and open spaces, an idea supported by elected leaders in both major political parties.  It even indicated majority approval for other ideas that have received no support from the state’s senior elected leaders, including tax-base sharing, growth boundaries, and limiting the growth of shopping centers.

Gathering Momentum
Mr. Thompson’s presentation was encouraging news to the broad group of 200 prominent representatives of southeast Michigan business, labor, educational, civic, cultural, and non-profit agencies attending the conference, many of whom have embraced the principles of Smart Growth and are now planning ways to work together on redeveloping the entire region. They were energized by new proof of the civic will for real changes, but also chastened by the still-long list of challenges that impede southeast Michigan.

The conference came at a propitious moment in Michigan’s drive to encourage more compact land use patterns, rebuild cities, and curb the runaway development that is dramatically altering the countryside. On August 15, the bipartisan 26-member Michigan Land Use Leadership Council, appointed by Democratic Governor Jennifer M. Granholm and two Republican party leaders, recommended 160 steps the state should take to curb sprawl and increase economic competitiveness.

On November 3, Ms. Granholm appeared in Grand Rapids to announce her 12 land reform priorities from the council’s report, most of which focused on improving the state’s urban areas. And the next day voters in Ann Arbor and Ann Arbor Township overwhelmingly approved property tax increases to protect open space, while voters in Grand Rapids and five neighboring cities approved a tax increase to improve public transit.
A Reality Check
During the October conference at Wayne State, prominent land use experts explored the obstacles and touted some of the steps already taken in the region’s journey to sustainable redevelopment.

Southeastern Michigan Council of Governments Executive Director Paul Tait underlined the importance and difficulty of the tax issue when he presented a SEMCOG report, Fiscal Capacity of Southeast Michigan Communities: Taxable Value and its Implications. The report found that, measured on a per capita basis, the region, which includes Livingston, Macomb, Monroe, Oakland, St. Clair, Washtenaw, and Wayne counties, is enduring a huge disparity in taxable values.

Mr. Tait said that Bloomfield Hills has the highest value, $165,794 per person, while Highland Park has the lowest, $7,012. Detroit’s is only slightly higher, at $7,573. Highland Park, Detroit, Southfield Township and a number of other “inner ring” and urban communities, many with largely African American populations, are experiencing sharp losses in taxable land value as the region’s migration to the exurbs continues.

“Communities with low relative per capita taxable value and no or slow growth face serious challenges,” the report concluded. “Strong state redevelopment policies and actions will be needed to assist them.”  

Lansing’s Role
Bill Rustem, the senior vice-president of Lansing-based Public Sector Consultants, which administered the activities of the leadership council, noted that the panel strongly supported some steps that would begin to address these severe economic imbalances. Mr. Rustem added that, even with the diverse backgrounds and interests of the bi-partisan, 26-member advisory group, “about 100 of the more than 150 recommendations were unanimous.” 

“The question is, ‘How do we change the rules of the game?’” Mr. Rustem remarked. “We segregate racially and economically — that isn’t mixed use. We’ve got to understand here in Michigan that we have all got to work together. We need to integrate our governmental decisions, not rip them apart.”   

Mr. Rustem said the leadership council’s three most important recommendations were commerce centers that would move state construction and other administrative resources to developed areas, agricultural production areas that would limit commercial and residential development in rural areas, and fast-track authority for urban redevelopment areas.

Progress In Detroit
One member of a panel of Detroit-area developers and City of Detroit officials indicated that state adoption of certain council recommendations could help her company meet its special challenges. 

Bren Buckley of Burton-Katzman, Inc., a brownfield redevelopment firm, said the state should speed the now “lengthy and complex” approval process involved in acquiring tainted land.

“Land assemblage is sometimes difficult to negotiate,” she added. “Many sellers do not appreciate the levels of contamination and the incentives don’t level the playing fields against green fields. We are very much interested in the redevelopment readiness supported by the Michigan Land Use Leadership Council.”

Detroit Chief Development Officer Walt Watkins said his city’s administration is emphasizing neighborhoods, downtown development, and retail expansion. It is also preparing to use its miles of riverfront to spur quality development, and is employing recently revised ordinances to banish eyesores that discourage residential and commercial investment.

Another panelist, David Schostak of Schostak Brothers, Inc. refuted what he said was the myth that municipal red tape slows redevelopment projects in Detroit.

“The issues are the gaps between what a project is worth and what it costs,” Mr. Schostak asserted. “Detroit’s issue is not its bureaucracy. The challenges are purely economic.”

Looking for State Leadership
A trio of state legislators led the summit’s final panel. Marc Shulman, the West Bloomfield representative who chairs the House Fiscal Agency Board, appeared with fellow Republican Chris Ward of Brighton and Democrat Steve Tobocman of Detroit. Mr. Schulman declared land use reform to be “critical and vital to Michigan” and said the council’s recommendation on increasing density would assist in providing affordable housing.

Noting that his district was on the “receiving end of sprawl and unbridled growth,” Rep. Ward said he supports incentives for inclusionary zoning, commerce centers, regional cooperation, and affordable housing as “fiscally sound.” Rep. Tobocman replied that his own district was on the “losing end of sprawl but with winning solutions.” He supported fast track authority, commerce centers, and building public facilities in established communities.

Colin Hubbell, another Detroit developer and a member of the governor’s land use council, underlined the day’s overarching theme: What’s most needed now is strong leadership in support of meaningful action.

“It isn’t just about policy, or legislation or executive orders,” he said from the audience during one panel discussion. “It’s also a message to the leadership of this state that we have some priorities and values.” 

Charlene Crowell, a print and broadcast journalist, is the Michigan Land Use Institute's policy specialist in Lansing. Reach her at charlene@mlui.org.

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