Detroit design firms among those selected to lead “Pink Zoning” initiative to reduce red tape in development projects
Goal is to develop processes that will ease redevelopment of commercial districts
Three corridors targeted for research and visioning project
Winners selected from among 38 proposals from US, Canada & Europe
Detroit’s planning department has selected three design firm partners to help the city create a vision for revitalizing its vacant commercial strips and reducing the bureaucratic hurdles that can stand in the way of redevelopment. Farr Associates/PlaceMakers/CHA, SmithGroupJJR and Laavu were selected from among 38 high-quality submissions received from across the United States, Canada, and Europe.
Pink Zoning Detroit is a research project that targets three commercial corridors in the city, for which the selected firms will create a vision for redevelopment. Then, those ideas will be tested against the City’s existing approval processes to identify how City codes or regulations may be changed to make redevelopment simpler. Upon completion, the project’s findings will be forwarded to the City Planning Commission and to City Council for their consideration.
“These three teams combine deep Detroit roots, high-quality design talent, and proven experience with negotiating complex regulatory processes,” City of Detroit Planning Director Maurice Cox said. “This is a real tribute to the depth of untapped planning and design talent that exists in our city. We’re delighted to be working with such exceptional teams to shape the urban life our neighborhoods deserve.”
The winning teams will spend the next seven months exploring bold design and development strategies for Detroit’s commercial corridors, and advising the City on zoning and building code amendments. Each team will receive a $19,000 stipend to support their work, funded through a Knight Cities Challenge Award from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
The design teams will develop visions for three key commercial corridors in the city. These sites are not presently being considered for actual rezoning, but their blend of circumstances is intended to provide the most comprehensive input to the project’s research. They are:
West Warren at Evergreen Road. Farr Associates/PlaceMakers/CHA and Laavu will explore how Detroit’s automobile-orientated commercial strips could be made into more pleasant, walkable, mixed-use corridors.
Gratiot and the Dequindre Cut. Laavu and SmithGroupJJR will examine how multi-acre vacant sites along Detroit’s corridors might be redeveloped in creative and context-sensitive ways.
East Warren at Outer Drive. Centered on the Alger Theater, SmithGroupJJR and Farr Associates/PlaceMakers/CHA will examine how adaptive reuse of Detroit’s historic assets could catalyze neighborhood revitalization efforts.
Design teams with Detroit roots
Commenting on the selections, jury member Mitch McEwen, assistant professor of architecture at University of Michigan, and principal at A(n) Studio in Southwest Detroit, echoed Cox’s endorsement: “These teams have design hustle that is specifically Detroit. Pink Zoning is asking them to channel that design experience to explore new possibilities for the city at a larger scale, and they are ready.”
SmithGroupJJR has been a feature of Detroit’s design and development landscape since 1853, and counts several notable Detroit landmarks in their portfolio, including the Guardian Building and the Riverwalk. Bringing their rich experience to neighborhood revitalization is a core priority for the firm, says SmithGroupJJR’s project lead, Michael Johnson:
“Ensuring more thoughtful, accessible, and inspiring urban design and development is critical to sustaining Detroit’s recovery. We’re excited to collaborate with partners in the City, design community, and neighborhoods to outline regulatory strategies that respond to Detroit’s unique needs while supporting great design.”
Doug Farr, who grew up on Detroit’s East Side and attended Cass Tech and the University of Michigan before founding Farr Associates in Chicago, said “I credit Detroit with leading me to my chosen profession as an architect and town planner. Our team is thrilled at this opportunity to apply our best ideas back home.” Farr Associates is partnering with PlaceMakers—national coding leaders who recently organized the Detroit Lean Code Workshop—and Christian Hurttienne Architects, a Grosse Pointe firm with extensive experience in small-scale building design and historic preservation in Detroit.
A small design practice based in Southwest Detroit, Laavu steered plans for Corktown’s Detroit Institute of Bagels through the City of Detroit’s planning processes in 2013, an experience which prompted project lead Kaija Wuollet to submit her team’s ideas for consideration.
“We have assembled a range of technical experts, community leaders and creative thinkers who will interrogate the design and regulatory process to create a more inclusive, innovative and equitable alliance to fulfill our city-building vision,” she said. Laavu is also the design team behind Café Con Leche Nord in New Center and Sister Pie’s premises on Kercheval Avenue in the West Village.
Laavu’s emphasis on community engagement particularly impressed Cox. One team member is the Lafayette Park writer and activist Marsha Philpot, who lives near one of the project’s three research sites on Gratiot Avenue.
“Laavu is bringing a community voice right into the heart of this process,” said Cox. “This is a lesson to us all: why should conversations about zoning and regulation always happen when the ink has dried? Why can’t we have early conversations about these issues, instead of assuming last-minute formal hearings will capture citizens’ hopes and concerns?”
Small focus groups of local residents and business owners at each site will help the teams visualize the future commercial corridors that Detroit’s neighborhoods wish to see. Once these visions are endorsed by the project’s advisory group, the City will work with the teams to explore regulatory reforms that could support such visions.
Helen Broughton, chairperson of the Friends of the Alger Theater, commented: “Pink Zoning Detroit’s mash-up of talented designers, community feedback, and multi-departmental collaboration is an intriguing experiment. We look forward to its potential to reveal unique approaches to redevelopment in Detroit.”
Recommendations from Pink Zoning Detroit are expected in June 2017.