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Two State Senators, Two Swipes at Sprawl

One bill buffs up main streets, other restores downtowns

June 26, 2005 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Bruce Giffin

The state Senate is considering two bills that would help cities like Jackson redevelop blighted surface streets and abandoned downtown areas.

Prompted by concerns that the state’s declining urban areas are further depressing Michigan’s struggling economy, two state senators are attempting to attack the problem with bills they introduced separately in the state Legislature. One of the bills, introduced by a Democrat, has had trouble gaining traction in the Republican-led state Senate. The other, introduced by a Republican, has been slowed by ongoing debate over what kinds of communities it should target.

Both proposals, which were introduced in the last six months, draw to some extent on the findings of the Michigan Land Use Leadership Council, the bipartisan, blue ribbon commission named by Governor Jennifer Granholm almost two and a-half years ago. Council members, appointed by the Democratic governor and the Legislature’s two top Republican leaders, issued 160 recommendations for boosting the state’s economy by curbing sprawl and protecting the state’s natural resources. Many recommendations concentrated on revitalizing Michigan's cities, almost all of which are steadily losing population and business activity.

Both bills, which are gaining political traction, reflect some of those recommendations. The proposal from the Democrat, Senator Gilda Jacobs of Huntington Woods, focuses on a highly visible problem: Blight along main thoroughfares within or connecting urban areas. The proposal from the Republican, Jason Allen of Traverse City, has a much broader focus that is generating debate among senators, economic and land use experts, and advocates for cities and townships.

Dan Gilmartin, executive director of the Michigan Municipal League, which lobbies the Legislature for the state’s towns and cities, said he wants to see both bills enacted, and that he views Senator Jacobs’ “corridor improvement authority” bill and Senator Allen’s “commerce centers” bill as close cousins.

“I love them both,” Mr. Gilmartin said about the two proposals. “They are completely compatible.”

Corridor Bill Gets Moving
Senator Jacobs’ bill allows local governments to establish special authorities with access to funds and bureaucratic shortcuts for redeveloping so-called urban corridors. It attracts wide support from urban leaders and organizations, but was badly stalled until this past week. Ms. Jacobs had said the delay was partisan inspired, but this past Wednesday, after many delays, the Economic Development, Small Business, and Regulatory Reform Committee unanimously voted it out of committee and onto the Senate floor.

The bill allows cities, acting alone or together, to form new corridor improvement authorities that would evaluate the economic condition of a specific, blighted urban thoroughfare; develop remedies with city planning commissions; and then purchase, redevelop, manage and resell distressed properties within their boundaries. Funding would come from “tax increment financing,” which captures the increased tax revenue that flow from the authorities’ own redevelopment efforts.

Senator Jacobs said that she wrote her bill based on suggestions from business leaders and that the MML helped give the bill the push it needed. Ms. Jacobs first introduced it in 2003 and again this January. Ms. Jacobs now expects the proposal to pass the Senate and move next to the House Commerce Committee.

One group that could benefit from Senator Jacobs’ bill is the Eight Mile Boulevard Association, a non-profit association in metropolitan Detroit that works on many of the problems the legislation addresses. Association Director Tami Salisbury said she likes the proposal because it would allow her association to establish a land bank. She said that the 27 miles of Eight Mile Rd. that her group is attempting to revive — one of metro Detroit’s busiest surface streets — contains at least 120 abandoned properties and many tax-reverted buildings that the bill would allow the association to purchase and resell to commercial interests.

The Definition Debate
Meanwhile, Senator Allen’s bill continues to generate debate on a basic point. The legislation establishes commerce centers that would gain special funding and technical and planning assistance via the state Department of Labor and Economic Growth. But representatives of a variety of groups cannot agree on exactly which communities should receive the commerce center stamp, and what that stamp would mean.

In recommending commerce centers, the land use council urged the state to direct its economic development resources to the places that need them most: Areas that already have streets, sewers, water mains, and other public facilities but are in decline due to population loss, disinvestments, or sprawling land use patterns that worsen those problems. The council also envisioned commerce center designation as a way to accelerate governmental decisions on planning, zoning, and building codes and thus encourage private investment in areas where, as the recommendations say, “need can be demonstrated.”

So Senator Allen’s bill raises a basic question: Should prosperous, sprawl-prone, rapidly developing suburban townships be declared commerce centers? Or small, northern Michigan villages that have fallen on hard times? Or only the state’s larger, most troubled cities? Under the senator’s bill, any city or village in Michigan, as well as any township of over 20,000 people within a county whose population exceeds 400,000, could receive commerce center designation and benefits. So could less populous townships, if their counties formally supported the idea.

Senator Allen says his bill would target locations “in Michigan that serve as the base of an area’s economic engine and population center,” whether it is “a Rudyard, a Traverse City, a Grand Rapids, or a Detroit.” He maintains that the council’s recommendation “stretches beyond just older urban areas or those with demonstrated need.”

But the definition remains in flux. The senator’s legislative director, Jeremy Hendges, said it will take more time to determine the bill’s final shape, particularly its criteria for commerce centers.

“We haven’t even gotten to a place where we can say that we have a majority of one side on board,” Mr. Hendges said. “Everybody has a different idea of what a commerce center is.”

Notes of Caution
In an interview with the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service, Senator Liz Brater (D-Ann Arbor), who sat on the Land Use Leadership Council, agreed that its commerce center recommendation was pointed at declining urban areas. Senator Brater said that Mr. Allen’s broadened definition goes “in a slightly different direction” than the council’s “original intent.”

And John Czarnecki, the Community Services Vice-President of MEDC, worries that Mr. Allen’s bill encompasses communities that are simply too small.

“There is a risk of including some very rural townships,” Mr. Czarnecki said, and added that his departments major fear is that the commerce centers bill may end up promoting development in rural areas: “That would just be sprawl.”

But Senator Allen, who represents Traverse City and some of the rural areas surrounding it, is standing by his proposed commerce center definition, observing that “a number of villages, especially in the district I represent, share the need for redevelopment” that the bill would address.

MML’s Mr. Gilmartin said he agreed with Senator Allen on that point and does not see his commerce centers bill “leading to sprawl.” But Mr. Gilmartin, who also sat on the Land Use Leadership Council, cautioned that commerce centers designations should not encourage infrastructure to “spread out and (be) less effective.”

State Representative Chris Kolb, a Democrat of Ann Arbor and a council member, said Senator Allen’s legislation is a good extension of the council’s commerce centers idea. But Representative Kolb also stressed the danger of “spreading our resources too thinly. We have to target the money we have so that it will be effective.”

A Possible Solution?
Senator Allen’s legislative director asserts that his office has “not received one contact that asks us to narrow the definition dramatically.” In fact, he said, “the biggest argument we are having right now is to keep the bill as small as it is,” especially in the face of pressure from the Michigan Township Association, which represents the interests of townships in the Legislature and claims that the bill treats them unfairly.

The legislation “puts qualifiers on townships, but not on cities or villages,” said the association’s legislative liaison, David Bertram. “Why is the burden on us?”

The debate over commerce centers will likely last through the summer as Senator Allen looks for a formula that balances a wider definition that might encourage sprawl with a narrower one that costs the bill the support of groups like MTA.

One state official suggested that a possible solution might be found in five-year-old legislation known as the Obsolete Property Rehabilitation Act. It established criteria, including a community’s size, average family income, and financial status, that led to the placement of 103 cities, towns, and townships on a “Core Communities” list. That list could provide Senator Allen with a working definition of commerce centers, according to David Hollister, director of Michigan’s Department of Labor and Economic Growth, and reduce the number of communities targeted for that aid.

“Core Communities is a preferred list of eligible communities for purposes of designating commerce centers,” Mr. Hollister said, “mainly for the reason that these communities are the urban areas of economic activity for their respective regions.”

Robert Johnson, the department’s Senior Executive Assistant Director agrees.

“The smaller list would also be more manageable in terms of the state’s resources.”

Supporters of the Core Communities list are likely to urge Senator Allen to use that concept when he writes his final version of the bill, sometime this fall.

Jeremy Babener, a student at Haverford College, writes and reports for the Michigan Land Use Institute's news desk this summer. Reach him at jeremy@mlui.org.

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