by Dan Rafter
Landlords trying to attract tenants to their buildings are increasingly focusing on how walkable their surrounding communities are.
Consumers who are renting because they want to — not because they can’t buy a home — want to live in neighborhoods in which they can walk to public transportation, shops, restaurants and movie theaters. They want to ditch their cars in secure parking places for weeks at a time. Many don’t want to own a car at all.
That’s why a new report — The WalkUP Wake-Up Call: Michigan — is such good news. The report, released on June 23 at the LOCUS Michigan Leadership Summit held by the George Washington University School of Business in partnership with Michigan State University, said that there is a pent-up demand for walkable urban multifamily developments throughout the state of Michigan.
Grand Rapids and the Detroit-Ann Arbor region are leading the way in creating new walkable urban places — which the report calls WalkUPs — in the state. And other regions of the state are slowly following their example, creating urban neighborhoods in which residents can rely more on their feet than their cars.
The report looked at the top seven metropolitan areas in Michigan: Detroit-Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids-Muskegon-Holland, Lansing, Jackson, Kalamazoo-Battle Creek, Saginaw-Bay City-Midland and Flint. Researchers found 46 WalkUPs in these areas.
According to the report, Michigan metro areas are moving away from drivable suburban development, long the dominant form of development here. Unlike WalkUPs, drivable suburban developments are associated with the automobile.
There are benefits to developers who build in walkable neighborhoods. According to the report, apartments rent for higher per-square-foot prices when they are located in a WalkUP instead of a drivable suburban location. The same is true for home prices. The data on rents for office and retail spaces are more of a mixed bag, with walkability not having as much of a direct impact on rents for these spaces.
“It would have been unthinkable 15 years ago that these metro areas within Michigan — the center of the car and truck manufacturing industry — would have seen any form of investment and development in walkable urban places,” said Chris Leinberger, professor of LOCUS and chair of the George Washington University School of Business, in a written statement. “The shift to walkable urbanism presents the opportunity for real estate developers, investors, land use regulators, public sector managers and residents to create economic opportunities while achieving environmental sustainability.”
Even with the development of more walkable areas, Michigan still has a way to go in becoming a more walkable state. According to the report’s authors, national polls have shown that up to half of the country’s population wants to live in a walkable place, but only 8 percent of the total housing stock in Michigan metro areas is walkable.
The report ranks WalkUP areas according to a variety of factors. Top platinum level WalkUPs in Michigan include downtown Birmingham and Main Street—Ann Arbor. At the other end of the spectrum, on the lowest copper level of WalkUPs, are areas such as downtown Dearborn East and downtown Bay City. These WalkUPs have the potential to become more walkable urban places, but need public support and/or a pioneering developer to realize these potential.
Walkable neighborhoods can come with a cost. The report notes that often when developers bring in the new housing, retailers and entertainment options that make up walkable urban neighborhoods, they displace long-time residents who can no longer afford the higher apartment rents and housing prices in these areas.
“We’re seeing many of the walkable urban places across these Michigan metros offering a strong combination of both economic opportunity and affordability compared to the drivable suburbs,” Gary Heidel, chief placemaking officer at the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, in a written statement. “However, as walkable development continues to grow, this may generate concerns over gentrification and displacement of low-income residents. Establishing plans in advance of this gentrification to preserve affordable housing is critical.”
How to provide a boost to Michigan’s overall walkability? Money will help. The report says that local leaders need to call for more investment in public transportation. Investment in rail transit throughout Michigan — a large need right now — is also key, according to the report.