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New Life on Plan-It Boyne

Dan Reed’s vision brings New Urbanism Up North

April 14, 2006 | By Rob Wooley
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


After arriving in 2004, Boyne City Director of Planning Services Dan Reed convinced his colleagues that New Urbanism will work in their town.

BOYNE CITY—When Dan Reed moved here 30 months ago, he brought a bundle of characteristically controversial but insightful ideas to his new job. Mr. Reed, who as a professional planner helps local governments decide what should be built and where it should go, told his new city hall colleagues that the plan they were using to guide their decisions needed a complete overhaul. 

The fact that his ideas initially stirred up quite a bit of comment rin this town of 3,500 at the east end of Lake Charlevoix reveals just how much things have changed since it was first built 150 years ago. Back then, things like houses built in neat rows along blocks of streets, corner stores an easy walk away, tree-lined sidewalks, and handy bus stops were basic community building blocks. But the rise of the automobile in the early 1950s, and the new zoning laws that facilitated that rise, have contained those building blocks to older downtowns like this one.

Mr. Reed, the town’s planning services director, proposed overhauling the city’s 10-year-old master plan to bring that kind of development back, boost this Up North town’s prosperity, and preserve the lovely countryside around it. What Mr. Reed suggested is today known as New Urbanism; it blends housing, stores, businesses, bike paths, and public transportation into traditional neighborhood and downtown designs, concepts that are now becoming extraordinarily popular in America.

Once officials, residents, developers, and real estate agents understood what Mr. Reed was promoting, the unease evaporated. Today it is extremely difficult to find anyone who will critique what he and other officials are up to. In fact, most people seem to love what the 45-year-old Lansing native, a former Air Force officer turned New Urbanist, is doing. Among many other things, Mr Reed is talking up “sustainability” and “pedestrian-friendly” designs, pushing to transform commercial strip malls into enjoyable places to walk, and figuring out how to get people out of car and onto bike paths.

“We’re very excited about it,” said Scott Mackenzie, executive director of the Boyne City Chamber of Commerce. “Something remarkable is about to happen in Boyne City and the synergy to create a vision of where Boyne wants to be in 10 to 15 years is incredible.”

Mr. Reed happily notes that the widespread support is also helping him fulfill a longtime dream. “I can finally write the plan I’ve always wanted to write,” said Mr. Reed, who is the oldest son of a retired landscape architect for the National Park Service.

Exploring Plan-It Boyne
When he took the job in 2004, Mr. Reed said, he immediately realized that the city’s master plan, which was over a decade old, lacked vision and was pointing the city in the wrong direction. Citizens were worried about growth, but had yet to put their finger on the exact problem.

“The town was up in arms about growth, the environment, water quality, wetlands, open space, and they were very vocal about it too,” he recalled. “I quickly realized the current master plan didn’t address any of those issues.”

So the new city planner began talking about sustainability, energy efficiency, and traditional neighborhood design, only to get blank stares from planning commissioners and members of the city council desperate for help and new ideas. 

“For the most part they laughed at me,” he recalled, “but over time they got it and started to make sense and things started to happen”

Mr. Reed spent most of his first year crafting a vision that would encourage Boyne City to pass some unusual ordinances that would attract national attention. He convinced the town to become an EPA-designated Green Community, an Arbor Day Foundation certified Tree City USA, and a League of American Bicyclists Bicycle-Friendly Community, as well as establish a National Wildlife Federation-designated habitat protection program.

Mr. Reed eventually formalized his serious, supposedly avant-garde ideas into a document with a humorous name: Plan-It Boyne. The eight-step plan is moving forward: The city has approved new energy efficiency and sustainability standards for buildings, better protection of wildlife habitat, restoration of the town’s pre-settlement shoreline, and requirements that new developments have lots of newly planted trees. Now a push to pass the biggest part of the document, the city’s master plan, is underway.

Beyond Tree-Hugging
“This will be unlike any other master plan I’ve ever been a part of,” said Mr. Reed as he shuffled excitedly through future land-use maps. He ticked off the blueprint’s main points, including “a winter cities design section.”

“We need to keep people active in the winter,” he bubbled. “You know, land use planning and public health go hand in hand.”

The city has passed ordinances that officials had never thought about before, including one that budgets tax dollars for protecting trees, planting new ones, and pruning them. It also requires developers to plant new trees at their construction sites.

Some may regard such initiatives as the stuff of tree-huggers and granola eaters, but Mr. Reed said his motives are far broader. This member of the Michigan Association of Planning board and Michigan’s Urban Forestry Council asserts that more efficient energy use, tree-planting, and making Boyne bike-friendly is really all about smart economic development.

“These are all key tools in designing and planning sustainable town centers and neighborhoods that are accommodating and welcoming to the pedestrian,” he explained. “For instance, trees serve as a pedestrian buffer between the street curb and the sidewalk. And bicycle paths and pedestrian-friendly streetscapes provide an alternative mode of transportation for people who can’t afford cars.”

Mr. Reed came up with his unconventional ideas about proper land use planning and town center development after spending almost four years in Wiesbaden, Germany as a noncommissioned Air Force officer in charge of a medical ward. It was there that he decided that his native country had it all wrong when it came to cities, suburbs, open land, and transportation. Germans, he saw, planned their communities around the integrity and safety of pedestrians, not automobiles. When he arrived back in the U.S., he immediately enrolled in Syracuse University’s Environmental and Urban Planning program.

But it took the young planner with an agenda to save America from sprawling strip malls and placeless subdivisions more than 14 years and five jobs before he felt that he was in a position to make a real difference. After holding planning jobs in cities like Fort Wayne and Grand Rapids, which has since become determinedly New Urbanist, he arrived in Boyne City with his wife and two children, hoping that he would finally be able to help make a difference in fighting sprawl and rebuilding community, a concept that he believes typical land use planning has eroded.

A Victorian 7-Eleven?
Many of his fellow townspeople now see Mr. Reed’s vision as firmly in the American mainstream, one that the country’s budding love affair with the automobile paved over. The man’s vision, his supporters say, is bringing back the once-strong American values of neighborliness, front porches, and lemonade stands.

For instance, Plan-It Boyne City includes ways to bring back the traditional, Victorian-style, two-story, mixed-use, corner general stores that once allowed people to walk from their home to pick up a gallon of milk or a newspaper. The plan identifies “neighborhood commercial nodes” within existing residential zones and recodes them to accommodate services that haven’t been seen in neighborhoods since the 1950s.

The ordinance is both flexible and strict, which has calmed fears of lots of traffic and tacky design disturbing quiet neighborhoods.

“If 7-Eleven is willing to build a corner store in Boyne City that looks and feels like a traditional general store with a Victorian style two-story building, a front porch, and a wooden sign, great!” Mr. Reed said, holding up a picture of the historical Horton Bay General Store as an example. “Our new ordinance will welcome the idea. But their traditional design, with that big orange sign and asphalt parking lot in the front, will not qualify as a corner store, I’m sorry.”

Indeed, New Urbanists agree that a building’s design and form should be much more regulated than its use — a belief that is central to the increasing use of what is called “form-based coding” or “Smart Codes.”

“I don’t care about what goes on inside,” Mr. Reed said. “It’s the way it looks on the outside that concerns me.”

Planting Seeds
Mr. Reed’s city hall office walls are lined with certificates, motivational posters, and zoning and land use maps. Two large, flat-screen computer monitors dominate his desk, making his cubicle look more like that of a big time stockbroker rather than a small-town planner. On one screen Mr. Reed flips through a PowerPoint presentation that he’s obviously very proud of. On the other, he keeps his eye on a real-time Webcam looking at traffic in Venezuela.

“My wife is from Venezuela, so I like to keep an eye on the traffic situation down there,” he said, jokingly. “But seriously, Venezuela is another example of a country that has got some great things going on. We can learn from them.”

He said he spends most of his time out of the office, selling his plan around town to basically anyone who will listen to him: from 4th-grade classes to the local Rotary Club. After he runs his PowerPoint, he hands out funny looking Chap Sticks capped with a big globe proclaiming “Plan-It Boyne City.”

“I’m just out there planting the seed, listening to people, having fun,” said Reed. “So far, people are really excited about it, and so am I.”

Rob Wooley directs the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Emmet County office. Reach him at rob@mlui.org.

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