Statewide collaboration allows redesign to reflects city’s ‘innovative by nature’ tagline

While enroute, many travelers and residents, alike, often quickly pass through downtown areas. They don’t always take the time to stroll the sidewalks, notice the rain gardens, or stop and smell the freshly-planted flowers in streetscapes. Auburn Road in Rochester Hills was once a bustling travel path until the M-59 highway rerouted travelers. The half-mile stretch received a streetscape redesign recently, providing both a functional and aesthetically-pleasing new look. With this new look also came a renewed sense of place and a reconnected community. 

Photo by Doug Coombe

Landscape Forms, an industry leader based in Kalamazoo, designs and crafts landscapes to enhance the outdoor space. Their solutions include adaptive outdoor structures, seating, shelters, signage, bike racks and LED lights. They have completed projects all over the world, including Harvard University, New York, Google, Coca Cola, Nike and hospitals. They were named Michigan Manufacturer of the Year by the Michigan Manufacturers Association, and one of Southwest Michigan’s Wonderful Workplaces by 269 Magazine. 

In partnership with OHM Advisors, a community advancement firm that works on architecture, planning, urban design, landscaping and more on the Auburn Road streetscape.  Ben Weaver, a project manager at OHM, participates in and oversees the design process for projects. 

Weaver says this project was a long time in the making, starting with preliminary engineering studies with the city of Rochester Hills. They discussed possible changes, what economic impacts would occur and what the pedestrian travel and vehicular travel effects would be.

“This area in Rochester Hills was a kind of underutilized area,” Weaver says. “It’s right on the edge of not only Rochester Hills in the neighboring community of Sterling Heights, but also Oakland County and Macomb County. It used to be a pretty heavily traveled thoroughfare back in the day. But once the interstate highway system, M-59, came about, about a mile south, this road saw a lot of decreased travel.”

Photo by Doug Coombe

The street had a 45-mile-per-hour speed limit with businesses on both sides and no curbs. Weaver describes the former space as a sort of “free-for-all” when it came to parking and wayfinding. After a pedestrian fatality, the city of Rochester Hills focused its efforts on creating a safer space and a connection between the north and south sides of Auburn Road. 

“The project kind of got going in that way, and then from there, kind of took off,” Weaver says.  “It started as just kind of a road project, but then kept morphing into something more as we were moving along.”

Inspired by the city’s ‘innovative by nature’ tagline, Weaver says the OHM architects chose a modern feel with flowing lines and smooth forms to represent the rivers that run through Rochester Hills. 

Josh Helms, director of design at OHM oversees the creative arm of projects, and keeps the vision throughout the building process. Helms contributed the design element of ribbons flowing through the median. The idea was to create a juxtaposition between innovative/modern and natural/historical elements of the community. 

“We worked with Landscape Forms and chose products to kind of fit those characteristics both for bike bike racks, seating, trash receptacles and even some light bollards that would provide power if you need to plug your phone in,” Weaver says. 

Photo by Doug Coombe

Helms says the task was to create a sense of place, and something that would be inspiring to the community, and an Instagram-worthy moment. The design took about eight to 12 months, and construction took roughly a year, according to Helms.

“That’s where a lot of the sculpture pieces came into play,” Helms says. “A lot of the furnishings dictated the flow of the space, and we wanted to make sure the furnishings respected the sculpture pieces. It was a really good process, and a lot of fun.”

The sculpture and aesthetics aren’t the only difference residents will notice. There’s a new set of functions and purposes to the redesign too. New rain gardens create a vibrant area, while also ensuring runoff on the street is filtered through the garden before it goes into storm systems. Their drains also prevent overflow onto the sidewalk. 

“The other thing we wanted to do was create something that would catch your eye and also slow traffic down,” Weaver says. “The road improvements reduce the area to a 25-mile-per-hour speed limit, so part of that is a traffic control measure. We made the road slightly narrower and added the medians. The sidewalks being very wide help promote pedestrian activity, and allow people to bike through there. The rain gardens help provide a separation between the sidewalk and the roadwalk. They helped break up the big expanse of concrete, but also helped calm traffic. You have all these plant materials blowing in the wind, and providing color and texture — which tends to make people slow down while they’re driving.”

In addition to the ribbons, parasols adorn the roundabouts, resembling a tree-like form in an industrial material. In securing furnishings, Weaver says he typically looks for inventory first at Landscape Forms. Helms says their Ohio projects also use a lot of Landscape Forms pieces. 

Photo by Doug Coombe

“We tend to go to them as our first pass through for inspiration,” Helms says. “We have another project in Westland, Mich., that will have several pieces from Landscape Forms as well.”

The project grew to also include a little public park addition, which took another four to six months to design, and eight to 10 months to build, says Weaver. The heavily-engineered roadway streetscape has already received many awards for its form and function. The Auburn Road project has received the 2021 Project of the Year for the Quality of Life Award, the 2021 Honor Award for General Design, 2021 Merit Award in Engineering, 2021 Community Excellence Award, 2020 Award of Excellence and 2020 Planning Excellence Award for Urban Design. 

Weaver says the revitalization project has been successful in its mission, in creating a destination within the community. 

“It made the whole area safer, and we provided a place for pedestrians to safely travel along the roadway to get to these businesses. It also increases property values, because people actually want to move down to this area because of the amenities it offers,” he says. 

Helms adds that his work with OHM is typically based in advancing communities in a variety of ways. 

“For this project, it’s a lot of reconnecting the community,” he says. “This area kind of fell off the grid a little bit, so we created a sense of place for them. That helps with increasing property values, businesses come in and people start to take pride in where they’re living. That’s what this project really tuned in on.”

Photo by Doug Coombe

Weaver credits the city of Rochester Hills for their expansive efforts and commitment to the revitalization project, which started as a road rehab plan. 

“When all is said and done, they probably spent twice as much as they thought they were going to, but they had a vision,” he says. “They recognized the importance of that vision, and the benefit that it would provide the community. They pushed us and they pushed the contractors. It would not have gotten to this level without their partnership and willingness to follow recommendations and their own instincts into getting this done.”

Helms was proud to have worked on this project that encouraged designers to think outside the box on a project that will still be special years from now. 

“That’s a lot of fun for us as landscape architects and designers,” he says. “We’re really happy with how it turned out.”

From furniture to shoes, from arts to education to even policy creation, design is everywhere you look. Designed in Michigan, a new story series coming out of West Michigan, is devoted to sharing the expansive role design plays in Michigan's past, present and future. It is made possible through the support of Kendall College of Art and Design and Landscape Forms.

Sarah briefly lived in Grand Rapids years ago, before moving back to Lansing, but that West Michigan love never really left her heart. Through her coverage on small businesses, arts and culture, dining and anything mitten-made, she’s committed to convincing any and everyone - just how great the Great Lakes state is. Sarah received her degrees in Journalism and Professional Communications. You can find her in a record shop, a local concert or eating one too many desserts at a bakery. If by chance, she’s not at any of those places, you can contact her at [email protected].
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