Shedding its past as a rural outpost, Troy has become Oakland County’s most populated city, and a business and shopping destination in Metro Detroit.
But the suburb of shopping malls and subdivisions forgot one thing along the way, city leaders say: a downtown.
Looking to create one, Troy officials want to move forward with an ambitious $328 million plan that would dramatically change how its current civic center property looks and operates.
The proposed 125-acre Troy Town Center would create a walkable urban center with a wide range of housing, retail and commercial buildings, a five-acre lake, a hotel and other amenities at the Troy Civic Center complex, at Big Beaver and Interstate 75.
The plan uses dense residential, commercial and civic development grouped around parks and squares. It features small blocks and includes a one-acre square with a large fountain that could accommodate community events, a farmers market or fairs. It also calls for a Veterans Park outside City Hall.
The current buildings at the civic center — City Hall, a library, courthouse and police station — would remain in place with some plans to update the outside of City Hall only.
The total cost of the project to private sector developers would be at least $328 million, officials say. The city already owns all the land but would need to invest $53 million over 20 years to make the plan work. Property taxes generated over the 20 years would provide a net balance for the city of about $12 million.
Urban planner Robert J. Gibbs, who owns Gibbs Planning Group in Birmingham, said Troy officials came to him in 2016 because they want to be competitive with communities such as Detroit, Royal Oak and Birmingham that have downtown areas.
Gibbs introduced them to New Urbanism. It’s a twist on the plans that structured towns like Flint, Birmingham and Kalamazoo in the 1920s to have civic centers as a centerpiece with parkland and housing designed around it.
“It’s a form of creating new towns or renovating historic cities. It’s totally based on old pre-war ways of planning,” Gibbs said. “It was a way of putting in civic buildings to make beautiful downtowns, with very formal types of plans.”
Custom zoning needed
The proposed master plan calls for 850 residential dwellings on small blocks and 180,000 square feet of retail/commercial space. All housing would be elevated two feet above a walkway for privacy and all commercial buildings would be designed with 70 percent clear glass and an operating door every 20 feet so pedestrians are not passing along solid walls.
To approve the project, city leaders would have to write a custom zoning ordinance that would allow dense residential housing and allow residential on top of retail, which is prohibited under current zoning standards, Gibbs said.
Troy City Manager Brian Kischnick said both the city’s Planning Commission and City Council have passed resolutions to pursue the project and set public engagement sessions at the city library in July and August so residents can ask questions about the plan.
A request for qualifications will be posted next month to search for a master developer to take on the project, Kischnick said.
Kischnick said the city would generate between $10 million and $12 million over the next 20 years in tax revenue from the property, which as municipal offices does not generate taxes.
“Everyone has been in support of it. The No. 1 comment I get is ‘I’d like to live there.’ It’s a really appealing residential setting with the retail and square,” Kischnick said.
Kischnick said the city hopes the developer would pay the project’s costs or the city might consider creating a tax increment financing district, which captures taxes and pays back the financial backer. Troy also could use existing funds or issue bonds for the project, a less likely scenario.
The 125-acre city property is “one of the most prime pieces of property in Midwest,” Kischnick said, adding that Troy has “significant demand” for residential housing, especially for baby boomers who are now empty nesters in the community of nearly 84,000 residents.
CORE Partners, a real estate consulting company, analyzed the project and determined that land sales and tax revenues over a 20-year period would generate a positive balance for the city despite a planned $53 million taxpayer investment into the project.
Larry Goss, an executive vice president at CORE, said the private sector cost to build the project ranges from $328 million to $338 million under CORE’s analysis and includes costs for buildings and infrastructure in the developed areas.
The city would collect about $35.8 million in residential and commercial property taxes over 20 years if the project is developed as proposed, Goss said, and land sales would add another $29 million, totaling $65 million in revenues coming into the city.
John Pavone, development adviser with CORE, said the city needs to make a first-phase investment of $13.2 million for city-related infrastructure and demolition to remove existing roads and reroute them inside the 125 acres.
A second-phase city investment of $15 million is needed to make improvements off-site to Big Beaver Road that include adding sewer capacity, for a total city investment of $28.2 million. There is about $3 million in financing costs in the project and $22 million for the proposed new civic building on the property, Goss said.
The end result would be a positive balance to the city of about $12 million over the 20 years.
Of the 125 acres in the civic center complex, about 60 are developed, leaving 65 undeveloped.
Under the plan, 20 additional acres would be developed, leaving 45 acres for parks, the lake and wooded areas including Huber Park, which would remain in its location but have invasive species removed and trees and ground cover added.
Troy resident David Ashland, 78, has lived in Troy for more than 30 years and says undeveloped green space is needed for the well-being of the community at large. Ashland said the proposal, which he does not support, would result in another cluttered environment with more retail that Troy does not need.
“We have a beautiful campus here. Green space us good for the mental and physical and health of our residents,” Ashland said. “It’s relaxing to come visit the library and the community center and have a pleasant place to walk.”
Ofelia Defonno, who has lived in Troy for eight years and is a native of Mexico, said she likes the idea of having somewhere to walk around and would consider buying a home in the new development for her husband and two children.
“We like to walk. Here, you get into a car and go. If you had a downtown you could walk around,” Defonno said.
Gibbs said the town center would be a 24-7 community with a complete neighborhood that includes starter apartments, cottage homes and senior condos. Prices would range from rents of $1,000-$3,000 month to houses that sell from $150,000-$500,000.
“We think in order to be a real neighborhood you have to be attractive to young people, middle-age people and seniors citizens of all income groups,” Gibbs said. “You should be able to walk to get a gallon of milk, walk to go to restaurant, walk to go to shops and get your basic daily needs without needing to drive.”
Gibbs said he is working on town center plans for Warren and Beverly Hills. Neither city has a traditional downtown.
Other New Urban developments in Michigan include Westwood Common in Beverly Hills, Cherry Hill in Canton Township, Macomb Town Center in Macomb Township and Town Commons in Howell.
“This is how everything would have been built prior to World War II. Everybody thought this was perfectly normal,” Gibbs said. “Millennials want to work and live in cities. This will fill that missing land use that they don’t have in Troy.”