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RapidBlog: Transforming The Suburbs Step By Step by Mark Miller

Mark F. Miller is an architect and urban designer at Nederveld, a local engineering and planning firm, the former chairman of the Grand Rapids Historic Preservation Commission and a past president of the Grand Valley chapter of the American Institute of Architects.  He's pictured here with his three children.

Wyoming's Turn On 28th St. Project.

Many first-ring suburban commercial corridors are in a state of visual and economic decline as they suffer from high vacancies, diminished business activity, lack of maintenance and a general perception of negativity. These aging corridors, once the commercial epicenters of both their communities and the region, typically have an over-abundance of commercial space, unsafe pedestrian environments, acres of paved parking lots and visual-clutter in the form of monumental highway scaled signs. Despite these problems, the corridors often still have high traffic volumes and access to plentiful existing municipal infrastructure.

The City of Wyoming is one of many communities now grappling with how to transform just such a declining commercial arterial. The Turn On 28th Street project is an effort to retrofit a bypassed one-mile stretch of 28th Street between Clyde Park and Burlingame Avenues into a viable alternative to the business-as-usual sprawl. Once referred to as the "Miracle Mile", this section of state highway M-11 boasted the region's first enclosed mall (Rogers Plaza) and the world's largest movie theater. It was home to Rogers Department Store and a vast array of destination shopping that was fueled by the city's exponential post-World War 2 growth.

Today, the movie theater is closed, Rogers Plaza is only partially occupied and much of the destination shopping has shifted to more strategically located commercial centers. In an effort to reverse these downward trends, the City of Wyoming and the Wyoming DDA have launched a long-range planning and implementation process that commenced with the creation of a master plan that envisions a new future for the old corridor.

The master plan represents an extensive community-based and market driven process that was led by Grand Rapids based Nederveld in collaboration with a multi-disciplined group of designers, planners, economists, transportation experts and PR consultants that included Williams and Works, Land Use USA, Progressive AE and Wondergem Consulting.

During the 10-month planning process, the consultant team worked intimately with an advisory group of Wyoming leaders to craft the new vision that was informed by extensive public outreach, including stakeholder interviews, surveys, design workshops and an ideas storefront that was set up for two-months in Rogers Plaza. This public input allowed the team to cultivate the collective local knowledge of the citizens and business owners of the community, while also helping to build consensus around the master plan and future initiatives. The plan was also heavily influenced by objective market analysis, economic strategy and thoroughly vetted land use recommendations that were part of a comprehensive market study that coincided with the public input and design phases.

As the public input and market analysis converged with emerging national trends, it became apparent that a plausible solution for the 28th St. corridor was the concept of suburban retrofitting, which is the process of entirely revamping, and in some cases completely replacing, the conventional single-use suburban development pattern into a more flexible mixed-use urban form. The national movement is thoroughly outlined in a recent book by Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson entitled "Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs" and could become a model for other regional first-ring suburbs that have dead malls and strip centers or old industrial parks.  It has also become a hot topic on sites such as The New Republic and The Urbanophile.

The final plans include a series of transformation drawings that promote incremental steps to retrofit the single-use corridor into a economically diverse mixed-use town center that will eventually provide an urban core for the city of Wyoming. The main street of this new "downtown" is a crescent shaped street that creates deflected vistas and provides a framework for unique architecture. This street is framed by retail storefronts and multi-story mixed-use buildings that screen the parking lots from the public realm. These parking lots provide view sheds into the new downtown from 28th St. -- effectively giving many of the retailers a visual presence on the heavily traveled thoroughfare while also providing for easy vehicular access to the new destinations.

Larger format national retailers are envisioned at the eastern end of the new main street and at the intersection of the existing Michael Avenue. These anchors are complimented by smaller scaled local and specialty retailers that line the rest of the street. The western edge of the redeveloped area is envisioned to accommodate office, institutional and entertainment uses that take the form of multi-story mixed-use buildings. The new town center is visually connected to the north side of 28th St. with a series of parks and plazas that occur at focal nodes of the new crescent street. The park at Michael Avenue provides a town square anchored by the existing city hall, while the parks at the two ends, where the main street connects to 28th St. provide ties to existing park infrastructure.

This framework, a vision for a 30-year transformation, will be adopted into the city's master plan later this year and will become the first step toward reshaping 28th St. into a more vibrant and sustainable place.

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