Detroit seeks ‘pink zones’ to revive neighborhoods

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — City planning officials are on the hunt for designs to revive Detroit’s neighborhood main streets while hoping to ease bureaucratic hurdles that often stand in the way.

Kirk Handren walks his Monty along Agnes, a main draw in West Village, on Tuesday.

Detroit this week is putting out a call to urban planners, architects, preservationists and designers for “Pink Zoning Detroit,” an initiative that sets out to transform the city’s complex land use rules and speed new development in its commercial corridors by reducing red tape.

The project, funded by a $75,000 grant through the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, will have three multidisciplinary teams put together visions for walkable, mixed-use activity in three commercial sites in Detroit. Later, the concepts will be tested against the city’s zoning ordinance and building code to identify roadblocks and work with city departments and others to identify strategies for reforms.

It’s hoped the process will ultimately spur regulatory change to make revitalization of the city’s neighborhood main streets easier, said Maurice Cox, director of the city’s Planning and Development Department.

“For us, it’s just kind of crazy that the urban life that we want is actually inhibited or stymied by the very rules that are supposed to enable them to happen,” Cox said. “We turn this upside down and say: ‘Let’s visualize the reality of this urban life that we want. Let’s look at where our current regulations don’t allow it and let’s just change the rules.’ This process will get us that.”

Team qualifications are being accepted through Sept. 16 and winners will be notified on Sept. 30. The groups will then embark on six months of research, design and analysis. Recommendations are expected next spring.

Pilot “pink zones” could be identified as early as next summer and allow the city to test relaxed rules within certain boundaries, Cox said.

The project is expected to serve as a model for other cities in the nation hoping to boost small development. It also earned Detroit a nod in the Wall Street Journal this spring as one of five cities “leading the way in urban innovation.”

“This really helps Detroit leapfrog over many cities that haven’t taken the time to rethink their strategies for revitalization,” Cox said. “In a way, it’s putting the vision we want first and then rewriting the rules after that will enable it.”

Many corridors that could benefit include east and west Warren, East Jefferson, Vernor, Dexter and Livernois and McNichols, Cox said.

The Duggan administration has been focused on “20-minute neighborhoods” that allow residents to walk or bike to get everyday necessities.

Cox held up the city’s West Village as a model for reinvention. In recent years, Agnes Street has become the main draw. The street is lined with trees, bicycle racks and several restaurants and shops.

Stephanie Blair, who grew up on the city’s west side, relocated to the walkable West Village district after living in Midtown.

“This is a different world over here,” said Blair, 27. “I bring neighbors from my old neighborhood over here and they don’t believe what they see.”

James Macmillen, a doctoral candidate and fellow in the planning department who is leading the project, said teams selected for the project will focus on three “test sites” not presently considered for rezoning, including a two-block stretch of West Warren Avenue, a vacant lot where Gratiot intersects with the Dequindre Cut; and a two-block stretch of East Warren at East Outer Drive.

Post-bankruptcy, Macmillen said, there’s an opportunity to reform Detroit’s zoning and building codes. Part of that is recognizing the frustrations that smaller start-ups face.

“It’s currently a hard ask for small business owners to go back and forth to city departments,” he said. “To that person, we would say: ‘We want to make your life easier,’” he said.

Julia Callis waits on Stephanie Blair at The Red Hook, a coffee shop on Agnes in West Village, an area where officials hope to spur new development.

Sandi Heaselgrave, owner of the Red Hook, a coffee and pastry spot in West Village, said she spent a year obtaining permits and approvals and sunk thousands into the build out of her 1,200-square-foot rental space on Agnes before it opened in 2014.

She credits commercial loans and a second location in Ferndale for getting her through the process.

“I feel like the hold up could really make or break somebody,” Heaselgrave said.

Zoning and building code changes to lessen the burden will be critical for attracting and retaining small business, she said.

“It’s a necessary solution,” she said. “I’ll be really happy if it turns into something that makes other neighborhoods more vibrant.”

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