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Lenders Help Shape Michigan’s Future Through Placemaking

Neighborhoods, cities, regions and states across America are taking notice of how important “place” is in the economic development equation. Michigan is no exception.

To revitalize Michigan, we must examine our state through a new lens, taking into account the types of places where New Economy workers, entrepreneurs and businesses want to locate, invest and expand.

This approach is commonly described as a “sense of place,” or just “placemaking.” It’s a simple concept, based on a single principle – talented and young people settle in places that offer the amenities, social and professional networks, resources and opportunities to support thriving lifestyles. Michigan can attract and retain talent-based workers by focusing on how best to utilize our regional communities’ unique placemaking assets such as squares, plazas, parks, sidewalks, green spaces and waterfronts.

Placemaking starts with looking at, listening to and asking questions of the people who live, work and play in a particular space to discover their needs and aspirations. This information is then used to create a common vision for that place. The vision can evolve quickly into an implementation strategy, beginning with small-scale, doable improvements that can immediately bring benefits to public spaces and the people who use them.

“Michigan stakeholders are realizing that placemaking strategies can help rebuild our economy and encourage more people to live in our state,” said Gary Heidel, executive director of the Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA). “We’re working with organizations including the Michigan Municipal League (MML) and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) to forge strong connections between financial institutions, local government officials, policymakers, residents, architects and Realtors to find solutions that go beyond the financial aspects of the housing slump.”

Bankers, investors and lenders are critical cohorts in placemaking. They are the ones who decide to fund or invest in development projects when a developer or development group requires financing. But since the onset of the most recent recession, lending – particularly in real estate – has become increasingly scrutinized by regulators, making lenders more risk-averse.

A recent survey of Michigan bankers by Michigan State University’s Land Policy Institute (LPI)1 revealed that approximately 53 percent of surveyed bankers rate placemaking developments as risky or very risky to finance. Yet 70 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that placemaking needs to be an important part of strategies in Michigan to attract high-impact economic activity. More than 75 percent of bankers strongly agreed or agreed that placemaking developments, along with more efficient and sustainable types of development, benefit the entire community.

Project for Public Spaces (PPS) is an international authority on revitalizing spaces and placemaking strategies. Together with MSHDA, MML, MEDC, MAR and other organizations in Michigan, PPS is providing the tools and impetus that Realtors, community leaders and other stakeholders will need to have to bring placemaking to their communities – and that are necessary to make placemaking a less risky investment for lenders. The PPS implementation strategy emphasizes the slogan, “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper.”

“Building convention centers and using tax incentives to attract big corporations isn’t working,” explained PPS Vice President Ethan Kent. “Instead, placemaking emphasizes smaller, inexpensive improvements: Adirondack chairs to watch the sunset, a great public square for a festival, or temporary incubator retailers with lower overhead costs. These can be the kinds of things that make people call a city or town ‘home.’”

Another key concept in placemaking is the “Power of 10,” the idea that any great city needs to offer at least ten great places, each including at least ten interesting things to do. These could include a place to sit, playgrounds to enjoy, art to touch, music to hear, food to eat, history to experience and people to meet. Ideally, some of these activities are unique to that particular spot and are interesting enough to keep people coming back.

“The Power of 10 offers an easy framework that motivates residents and stakeholders to revitalize urban life, and shows that, by starting efforts at the smallest scale, you can accomplish big things,” explained Kent. “The concept also provides people something tangible to strive for and helps them visualize what it takes to make their community special.”

PPS has been building signature projects in Michigan for years. Thanks to lending from National City Bank (now PNC), the improved Campus Martius Square in downtown Detroit has become a community magnet, attracting more than $700 million in new investments around it. Compuware, a computer firm, moved its headquarters and 4,000 employees from the suburbs to a new building adjacent to the Square.

“Compuware would not have come downtown without the park,” notes Bob Gregory of the Detroit 300 Conservancy. “They didn’t want just a building. They wanted a lively district, where their workers would have things to do.”

The revitalization of Eastern Market was made possible by the contributions of National City and the planning and technical assistance of PPS dating back to 1998. More recently, with the support of the Ruth Mott Foundation, PPS has completed a three-year placemaking program in downtown Flint, and new vitality is emerging in places ranging from Riverbank Park to the Flint Farmers’ Market.

Meanwhile, in Grand Rapids, placemaking ventures financed by Huntington Bank are drawing business owners, including Cynthia Kay, founder of a high-definition media production and communications consulting company. Her clients include multinationals such as Herman Miller, Amway Global, Siemens Industry, Novartis, Wiley Publishing, as well as educational institutions including Michigan State University, Grand Valley State University and Hope College.

Downtown Grand Rapids exemplifies how “placemaking” works best by featuring community assets combined with an energized hub of activities, such as the annual ArtPrize outdoor exhibit, museums, entertainment events, chic boutiques, restaurants and office developments that spur networking opportunities.

She could have opened her state-of-the-art shop anywhere. But Kay chose Grand Rapids because of her belief that a vibrant community is vital to success – not just to her corporate bottom line, but to the quality of life her family, employees and neighbors proudly enjoy.

“Our downtown is a place where people want to be,” she says. “You’ll find students, young professionals, entrepreneurs and corporate types out and about networking and socializing in cafes, restaurants and parks. We get to rub shoulders, rub ideas together, and the magic that results is good for business.”

“And the arts scene in Grand Rapids is a big part of it all. From museums to ArtPrize, it’s an energizing environment where things can and do happen. When you’re a part of a community like this, you want to be a part of it and give back – that’s why we donate our services to many nonprofits. It’s part of the cycle that brings people and ideas together.”

MAR, MML, MEDC and the Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA) share Cynthia Kay’s belief: placemaking matters.

“Realtors spend a great deal of our time selling ‘place,’” explained Gilbert M. White, placemaking consultant for MAR. “Realtors and lenders are both uniquely situated to help inform and advance the discussion on placemaking in our communities. There is a positive correlation between placemaking elements and local housing choices. Places in higher demand can command higher prices.”

“Placemaking has long been a key organizing idea of MSHDA’s community development projects,” said Gary Heidel. “Our Michigan Main Street Program is helping communities develop main street districts and traditional commercial neighborhoods that attract new residents and businesses, promote investment and jump-start economic growth.”

MSHDA also is developing a curriculum for government and nonprofit administrators and a Web site, www.miplace.org, to spotlight cities and neighborhoods that have a great sense of place and provide individuals with the tools they need to help create place in their own communities.

According to the LPI study, 83 percent of bankers surveyed felt that having access to more tools, data and knowledge demonstrating the benefits of placemaking would influence their decision to finance such projects and 72 percent agreed or strongly agreed that having access to a placemaking checklist or toolkit would enable better communication, valuation and understanding of the benefits of placemaking between bankers and developers. MSHDA is developing those very tools.

Meanwhile, a lively placemaking discussion already is in motion in the “MI Great Places” Facebook group, run by White and other leaders in the Michigan placemaking movement. The group features photos and examples of effective placemaking, including a conversation about bringing art to Detroit’s abandoned storefronts and setting up community gardening initiatives.

“We have the ideas,” White said, “but it’s up to investors within our communities to aggressively, but cheaply, fund neighborhood placemaking opportunities. It’s going to be an incremental process with many small steps. But we can’t be overly worried about failure; we must embrace placemaking and adopt a ‘what are we waiting for’ attitude. Otherwise we will over plan, over regulate, and probably slow things down and negatively impact enthusiasm.”

For Michigan, placemaking is a catalyst providing not only a way of playing off the natural assets that exist within every community, but also strengthening partnerships between communities, organizations and government. It may very well be the best way to re-create our economies and communities for the 21st century, and to breathe new life into Michigan’s struggling real estate industry.

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