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April 2008 · Volume 90 · Number 3

Cover Story

rewriting the story of inner-ring suburbs

by anna clark and melanie piana

The best stories are the familiar ones. From Greek myths to boy-meets-girl, our culture has built a bank of stories through centuries of retelling. No matter how predictable the endings, we find new ways to tell them.

One old story that’s playing out in southeast Michigan has already cycled around the country. You’ve heard it before: development bypasses older built-out communities for new suburbs on the outer fringe. Economic development in inner-ring suburbs struggles while state and federal investments are allocated to new-growth areas, leaving local governments incorporated before 1960 scrabbling. Left behind is a glut of buildings that are no longer usable. Meanwhile, urban sprawl is catalyzed when open spaces are paved over, as empty structures exist mere miles away.

Not a happy ending by a long shot. But this is one familiar story that we’re going to change.

Redevelopment Ready Communities® (RRC) is a project of the Michigan Suburbs Alliance, a nonprofit coalition of 32 inner-ring suburbs. Since 2005, RRC has been altering the narrative of mature communities. It’s one of the nation’s first initiatives to measure a city’s or a county’s progress toward “redevelopment readiness” with a certification program that brings with it the expertise of a steering committee comprising developers, planners, advocates, and government officials. Using a set of best practices and technical assistance, RRC helps localities build deliberate, fair, and consistent development processes from the inside out—and to effectively communicate them.

“(RRC) makes communities ask why they operate they way they do, and it seems that quite often the answer is just ‘because we’ve always done it that way,’” said Jason Friedmann, senior planner in Michigan’s Macomb County and RRC committee member.

Friedmann goes on: “It’s exciting to see our communities embracing new, innovative strategies, and adapting. Our communities must participate in these types of programs if they want to survive.”

When a city becomes a certified Redevelopment Ready Community, it promotes itself as a location that has transformed development practices that no longer apply to modern spaces. Gone are the nonsensical logistical traps buried in decades-old ordinances. In their place are clear procedures, a community-supported redevelopment vision, an open and predictable review process—and much more compelling sites for developers to locate their latest projects.

“[RRC] is good for cities—especially built-out brownfield communities—because developers can take comfort in knowing that the community embraces redevelopment, that it has a vision for specific sites that community leaders buy into,” said Jason Horton, RRC member and executive vice president of REDICO Management, a local development firm.

This time, we’re the authors of our own story.

In the Beginning

It took two years of planning before RRC launched its pilot program. With funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the C. S. Mott Foundation, RRC brought 23 academics, city planners, economic developers, lawyers, developers, and state officials together in 2003.

“What drives me is helping these struggling older communities, who find themselves—through no fault of their own—they find that the rules are against them,” said RRC member and Eastpointe, Michigan, economic development director, Steve Horstman.

The first order of business: mapping the territory. “Even before we drafted the best practices standards, we did an exhaustive inventory,” said Dave Scurto, associate planner at Carlisle-Wortman and RRC’s primary consultant. “We examined how long it took to get a permit through a city, we looked at tax revenue.”

When it came down to details, differences emerged. “In the beginning, it really was the planners against the developers,” said RRC member Andrea Brown, director of the Michigan Association of Planning. “I was the most vociferous even among the planners about the value of visioning—not just with elected and appointed officials, but [that] the community needs to be involved, especially in the more challenging sites.”

Expectations shifted, remembers Scurto. “At first, everybody said we’d talk about finances—tax abatements, tools that the state put in place,” Scurto said. “But we ultimately reached a place where everyone understood what we were talking about with vision—not just the writing but planning—as part of the action to engage citizens with public education.”

The committee’s dedication was palpable. “We’re all very different people who committed to meet every other week, to give up at least two hours and duke it out, to finally ?understand each other’s sides,” said RRC member Maxine Berman, special projects director for Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm.

While they could be grueling, the preliminary talks were also seen as revolutionary. “That’s why it’s so exciting to have everyone at the table—the developers too,” Horstman said. “It’s the first time we sat down together and came up with concrete solutions.”

When interests that initially seemed to compete finally emerged into consensus, the Michigan Suburbs Alliance unveiled its assessment tool: RRC best practices.

Ground Setting

The six RRC best practices standards are designed to determine which redevelopment processes work and which contain barriers. More than a checklist, the standards are weighted on a 100-point scale. A city must achieve 80 out of 100 points to become certified. Cities renew their RRC status after three years through a second evaluation.

  • Community visioning and education is one of the most heavily weighted standards. How does a city engage citizens in planning? Are master plan updates accessible? Is there site-specific visioning?
  • Development plan review process is also heavily weighted. Here, how many approval gates a project must maneuver are examined. Cities receive points for procedures on special land use requests, site plan reviews, and rezoning. Most important, a city must have an “intake professional” to process applications. This saves the developer from bouncing from department to department.
  • Through continuing education for public and appointed officials, we examine what types of ongoing training opportunities cities provide for the planning commission and zoning board of appeals, ensuring better decisions.
  • State and federal financial incentives are plentiful. Local governments are urged to promote what tools for redevelopment they’re willing to use.
  • A community’s zoning ordinances are reviewed under the topic of development regulations to see if it’s paced with changing market demands.
  • Development regulations then moves neatly into marketing redevelopment sites, where cities promote sites with packages of materials.

How does the balance of administrative power lie? The RRC committee accepts cities into the program, reviews evaluations, and recommends improvements. It has the final vote to award or deny certification.

Program implementation resides with the Suburbs Alliance’s associate director, who is the liaison between local governments and the RRC committee. The associate director leads each community through certification in partnership with Dave Scurto, RRC’s primary consultant.

Rising Action

By 2005, RRC was ready for the first round of local governments. Five Michigan cities that represented the geographic and demographic diversity of the Suburbs Alliance’s membership were selected for pilot certification: Eastpointe, River Rouge, Hazel Park, Ypsilanti, and Southfield.

Rochelle Freeman is Southfield’s business developer and an RRC committee member. She’s adamant about how RRC pushed Southfield toward a new vision of how to use city buildings. “We have a lot of open office space—we just had one office building torn down,” Freeman said. “Nowadays, with the digital revolution, people are working at home or sharing offices with, say, three other people. We need to reimagine things. It was an office but maybe it can be something better.”

Horstman, who championed Eastpointe through pilot certification, recalls that RRC improved his city’s communications. “[An RRC city] needs a Web site that’s kept current, with easy access to information,” Horstman said. “Developers need a central location to see the community vision. What properties are available? What are the community needs? There should be accessible information on the planning commission—when do they meet? Are there fees?”

Self-questioning is one of the most meaningful results of RRC. It signals that redevelopment in this community is different.

“The cities themselves deserve a lot of credit for saying, ‘hey, maybe we have to change something about ourselves,’” said Berman. “Instead of, ‘oh, we need more revenue sharing,’ or, ‘oh, it’s the state’s fault.’”

Additional Communities Sign On

After the pilot cities were certified in 2006—with statewide attention—RRC accepted second- and third-round localities. Today, 14 inner-ring suburbs participate in RRC. The original five went through recertification last year.

These urban communities are in a new position to boast. Whether it’s interesting neighborhoods, large trees, centrally located schools, or committed leadership, RRC cities are poised to communicate local wealth through the best practices standards.

And those standards are constantly improved. The RRC committee revises them regularly, belying any neat divide between preparation and action. The committee is dedicated to constant evolution, which is critical when the committee is challenged by, for example, changes in leadership. When a city has only one or two individuals working on RRC, the setup is primed for misunderstandings when those individuals move on.

“Many cities don’t have a planner,” Brown said. “And there are a lot of things to do. We’re talking about streamlining redevelopment operations and ways of doing things that the city has done the same way for 20 years. It’s a big job.”

The solution? Write it down. “We need to document everything, so everybody can see the process,” Scurto added. “Process is king.”

If a transparent process isn’t enough to move a community through RRC certification, Scurto has another idea. “We need a certain amount of stability [in local government staff and leadership]. If that’s not there, maybe we’ll hold off this year, and the city can reapply next year,” he said.

Besides city fluctuations, the committee is preoccupied with securing funding to support technical assistance. “We’re finding ways to make progress sustainable,” Horstman said. “Should [RRC] be fee driven? There could be a small fee for developers to come to communities. For them, it would be worth it.”

But RRC committee members agree that it’s Michigan’s economy that is the biggest obstacle to redevelopment. Brown pointed out that “there’s not a lot of investment even in greenfield communities” right now.

But Berman believes that the moment is all the better for RRC. “In a tough economy, it’s hard to see results in two seconds,” she said. “As things get better—and they will—RRC communities will have a big leg up.” Scurto echoed Berman’s thoughts. “Everything goes through cycles,” he said. “We’re setting the table for dinner, and when dinner is ready, we’ll be there to eat.”

“Why wouldn’t I go to a RRC community when I know the process will be faster and more transparent?” Berman added.

Denouement

Less than three years into active certification, and in the midst of Michigan’s economic troubles, has RRC brought the story of southeast Michigan’s inner-ring suburbs to a satisfying ending?

Scurto said that, thanks to certification, “we do see more bricks and mortar go up” in redeveloping communities.

Horstman said that redevelopment goes deeper than it might seem. “We’re so new, we’re not going to see the fancy new buildings yet,” he said. “The concrete result is the change in internal processes. Is that front-page newsworthy? No. Is that going to have a concrete benefit and result? Yes.”

That benefit could be even greater beyond southeast Michigan. “In states that aren’t as hard-hit as Michigan, you’d probably see more results more quickly,” Horstman said.

“This is a very movable program that could be taken anywhere in Michigan, and anywhere in the country,” said Berman. “In the redevelopment community, this is the best thing going.”

Scurto recognizes that the story in southeast Michigan is one that just might go cross-country. “These should be national practices!” Scurto exclaimed. “I want to see them become a moot point because they’re so normal.”

What might need to be tweaked if the program were applied elsewhere? Berman noted that in most states county government plays a larger role in local redevelopment; the RRC program would need to be adapted.

But regardless of a region’s peculiarities, RRC hinges on demystification in both internal procedures and between collaborators. It fosters renewed honesty as we rebuild the communities we love.

“One of my favorite things is the real back and forth among communities, developers, and the Suburbs Alliance,” Horstman said. “Nobody’s afraid to pull punches and be direct and honest with one another, and that’s a good thing. We’re all on the same side. We’re equals.”

Anna Clark is communications coordinator, Michigan Suburbs Alliance, Ferndale, Michigan (anna@suburbsalliance.org), and Melanie Piana is associate director, Michigan Suburbs Alliance, Ferndale (melanie@suburbsalliance.org).






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